'They (John Gielgud, left, and Ralph Richardson) belonged to the Edwardian era where the actor's job was to entertain rather than instruct and they certainly didn't identify with the Court's radical ethos. At first they were panic-striken. They obviously thought no one could be amused by what they were saying.' Critics judged their performances as 'perfect, tragic, unforgettable'
In 1970, the director Lindsay Anderson was 10 pages into David Storey's play Home when he decided it should be a main-stage production at the Royal Court. 'It was an instinctive response. I knew it was very, very good; it has a wonderful poetic quality and should be cast very strongly.' Anderson began at the top - with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson - and needed to go no further. A hard act to follow, which is possibly why it has taken almost a quarter-century for the play to be revived. It opened last night in the West End, once again strikingly cast, with two of our most adroit comedians, Paul Eddington and Richard Briers, in the plum roles.
With just a set of a white table and four chairs, Home explores an encounter between five people. Through an exquisitely wrought sequence of non sequiturs and pronouncements - possibly true, probably false, at once pitifully sad and raucously funny - they scatter the shards of their broken lives. The audience discovers, just as Storey himself did while writing Home, that the quintet are not guests at a genteel hotel, but inmates of a lunatic asylum. Nevertheless, much of the play's subtle power stems from recognising them - with one exception - as only a touch more unhinged than the rest of us.
Gielgud has admitted he was 'intrigued but somewhat mystified' by the play, but it happened to catch him and Richardson at a cusp in their careers. The theatre had moved beyond them. 'They belonged to the Edwardian era where the actor's job was to entertain rather than instruct, and they certainly didn't identify with the Court's radical ethos,' says Storey. For them, Home was a jump in the dark. But, as Storey adds, 'It was a reciprocal jump which welded two theatrical traditions.' While the presence of the knights inevitably lent considerable weight to Storey's status as a major writer, the intricate demands of the play also brought a new lease of life to the careers of the actors.
Storey vividly recalls the first week of rehearsals. 'Lindsay Anderson and I had developed a way of working together by then, and we always sat three or four seats apart, communicating by looks and gestures. At first the actors were panic- striken. They rattled along at great speed, moving around all the time. They obviously thought no one could be amused by what they were saying.
'Ralph was worried about the lack of plot; he looked instinctively for a literal narrative, and he used to invent allegories to create the feelings he needed for that particular moment. I remember him saying: 'Couldn't this be the point at which I discover some stolen jewel? I think something should happen here.' Gielgud tuned in to the emotional reality quite quickly. For him it was a question of refining and focusing it. He once said 'This is the moment when I cry. Then I shall cry. I can do that whenever you need.' Ralph couldn't do that - or resisted doing it. I don't remember him ever producing tears.'
Lindsay Anderson recalls the run of Home as 'a golden time of great happiness and harmony. It was an act of great courage by John and Ralph because it was unlike anything they'd done before, but they soon discovered the music of the play and realised that it worked in human terms.'
Storey did not intend to get involved with the revival, but accepted an invitation to watch rehearsals and found himself intrigued by the work in progress. 'The knights came at the play from the darkness and worked towards lightening it with comedy. The comedic actors (Eddington and Briers) come from the opposite end of the spectrum, starting off quite lightly and darkening it. It's deceptively easy to slip into conversational mode - which mustn't happen. It's like walking a tight-rope. The two gentlemen actors are dealing with material they haven't tried before but they are extremely deft, and ageing brings an element of gravitas to what they do.'
None of which has prevented fans of Eddington and Briers who have seen the play in its pre-London tour from objecting to 'the coarseness' of the play. 'It's an odd reaction,' Storey says, 'and not one we got first time round.' On Home's original provincial tour, performances were punctuated by the clicking of seats as people left the auditorium. 'Ralph said this was a sign of success as far as the audiences in London were concerned.' As indeed it was. The play was judged 'rare and beautiful', the performances 'perfect'.
Home opened when Storey's play-writing career was on a bit of a roll. It was the fourth of five of his plays to be staged at the Court between 1967 and 1971. All but one transferred to the West End; Home went on to Broadway and was also televised. Yet Storey ventured into the theatre almost by default. He had been writing novels since the age of 15, but it was only when This Sporting Life was rejected for the nth time that he turned to drama and wrote the award-winning The Restoration of Arnold Middleton. One play led to another. And out of The Contractor (in which a marquee was erected and dismantled on the stage), Home was conceived. 'I was struck by the image of a white metalwork table which is left on the stage.'
It has often happened that way, with a picture telling a Storey, and is perhaps explained by the writer's parallel talent as an artist. Storey took up a place at the Slade in order to take advantage of the free time for writing. Every weekend he returned to Leeds where he was signed up as a rugby league professional. Fellow players thought he must be homosexual; fellow artists labelled him a 'northern oaf'. The suspicion from both sides contributed to the sense of being an outsider that, as a writer, he already felt.
He also felt guilty. To the son of a Wakefield miner, writing seemed 'a great luxury. I was very ill at ease with that, and one way of atoning was to graft at it as long as I could.' In a room above a sweet shop in King's Cross, where he lived with his wife and children, he used to graft for 16 hours a day ('that's two shifts down a mine'). You can, it seems, take a man out of a mine, but you can't take the miner out of the man. 'It was a futile attempt to equate art with social justice.'
Now aged 60, mild-mannered, silver-haired and living in 'cherished anonymity' in Kentish Town, he writes for only five or six hours a day ('The guilt is getting a bit thin and the imperative isn't there'), writes more poetry ('a consolation of old age'), and has consigned painting to 'recreation. If I'm going to do something real with it, it would take a lot of grafting and I would have to abandon writing. I can't do that.'
To some extent, Storey's play-writing emerged from the constraints he felt as a painter. 'I was frustrated by the 2-D element of painting and began working on constructivist pictures incorporating plaster of Paris and metal objects into the picture surface. I found some kind of echo of that in the Royal Court stage, something to do with the proscenium arch. I felt aesthetically excited by it. There was a 3-D element; you can go up and down, in and out.'
Despite his success as a playwright, Storey's relationship with the theatre has always been detached. 'I don't feel profoundly connected with the theatre, and I don't like it when the audience is there. It's a middle-class, mass thing. I recoil from that corporate sensation.' While he never goes to plays, he feels entirely at ease with the medium. 'If a play works it is delightful to do, more naked in its compression than a novel, more vulnerable and more delicate and more available to being perceived by the artist.' As to future plays, Storey remains non-committal. 'I've one or two ideas I'm tinkering with, and if I write a play again I'd be drawn to write from the experience of working with these actors. It's been very fulfilling.'
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