My season with Sam

The actor Corin Redgrave has long been fascinated by Samuel Johnson. So a chance to play the man of letters at a brand-new theatre in his birthplace of Lichfield was irresistible
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The Independent Culture

For a long time I was fascinated by Samuel Johnson, for some of the reasons that I was fascinated by Oscar Wilde. Two tall, ungainly men, with large, hyper-intelligent heads sitting on even larger bodies, setting off for London and dominating it with their personality and their conversation. Both suffered something in that transaction. Wilde, because he incautiously invited us to take him at face value when he said that he had put his talent into his art and his genius into his life. Johnson, for the misfortune of having his life recorded and his sayings collected by the greatest biographer who ever lived. When we think of Johnson, we remember him first as a sort of sententious John Bull, with a memorable and quotable opinion on every subject, from patriotism and second marriages to capital punishment, and only afterward as the author of Rasselas, The Vanity of Human Wishes and Lives of the English Poets.

But it was the latter Johnson who came to interest me more. Here was a man whose conscience was so humane and sensitive that it woke him in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, and who cried so helplessly at the final act of King Lear that he preferred Nahum Tate's happy ending to Shakespeare's tragic one. It was this Johnson whom I encountered in Richard Holmes's superb biography of a biography, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, and even more fully in Maureen Lawrence's play Resurrection.

Johnson, I learnt, adopted a young black boy into his care. Francis Barber, born on a sugar plantation, was owned by the father of Johnson's friend, Richard Bathurst. Johnson made the young Barber his servant, and later his ward and his heir. Richard Holmes had suggested that Barber, after Johnson's death, had lived in modest comfort and security. But Maureen Lawrence had looked further, and found out that he was, in fact, fleeced of his inheritance by an unscrupulous and hostile society, and died in penury in Lichfield, Johnson's birthplace.

It turned out that all Johnson's humanity, decency and abhorrence of slavery were inadequate to protect Barber against a hostile white world. And Maureen Lawrence, who with her husband had adopted two black boys, believing that more could be achieved by personal example than by a hundred politicians, had found out in her own experience and in the writing of Resurrection that decency, even such magnanimous decency as Johnson's, is powerless when up against oppression and institutionalised racism.

For years I had wanted to do this play, ever since I sat down with my friend Annie Castledine in 1993 in my garden in Balham to discuss what we wanted to do in the theatre. Annie had made Maureen Lawrence writer-in-residence at Derby Playhouse when she was artistic director there, and if any one person could be called the begetter of Resurrection, it was Annie.

The opportunity presented itself last year when a woman wrote to me from Lichfield. I wrote back saying that I liked Maureen's play and would love to play it in Johnson's hometown, if only there were a theatre. "There is a theatre," my correspondent replied. "It is being built now, and will be open next year." So the idea was born for Annie and me to go to Lichfield in autumn 2003, with the Moving Theatre Company, to present two plays. Resurrection had, so to speak, chosen itself. But the choice of second play needed more thought. Besides honouring Johnson, we wanted to honour David Garrick, Johnson's friend and companion, another of Lichfield's great sons, whose name the new theatre bears.

The Recruiting Officer was the first play Garrick acted in, as a boy of 11, at the Bishop's Palace in Lichfield. George Farquhar also wrote some of it while staying at the George Hotel in Lichfield. More importantly,it happens to be one of the great groundbreaking comedies in English and Irish drama. It is set in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Blenheim, and it was first performed at Drury Lane on April 8 1706, six weeks before Marlborough's second great victory at Ramillies.

Annie and I reread Farquhar's masterpiece in the immediate aftermath of Blair's first dossier. Each subsequent reading was accompanied by the appalling drumbeat of the invasion, conquest and occupation of Iraq, and against a background of overwhelming opposition to the war at every level of our society.

What struck us about Farquhar's play is that his world sits totally at ease with Marlborough's victory and the humiliation of the French enemy. Indeed, the chief recommendation of Captain Plume, as far as his prospective father-in-law, Justice Balance, is concerned, is that he fought at Blenheim: "Look'ee Captain, give us but blood for our money, and you shan't want men... you have brought us colours, and standards, and prisoners; odsmylife, Captain, get us but another Marshal of France and I'll go myself for a soldier." All England, it seems, rejoices in the victory without a twinge of conscience or regret. Blenheim, a victory against the odds, helped to shape the legend of England as the plucky underdog.

But whatever Farquhar's own experience of battle (it has been suggested that he fought as a boy in the battle of the Boyne), his experience as a recruiting officer in Shrewsbury, Lichfield and a score of towns in Shropshire, Staffordshire and Herefordshire left him with no illusions about his profession or about the society from which he fought to scrape a living as a soldier, poet/dramatist, and lover. It is a world of hypocrisy, deceit and violent abuse: "What induced you to turn soldier?" asks Worthy of Kite, the recruiting sergeant. "Hunger, and Ambition," says Kite, "The fears of starving and hopes of a truncheon, led me along to a gentleman with a fair tongue and fair periwig who loaded me with promises, but igad 'twas the lightest load I ever felt in my life. He promised to advance me, and indeed he did so, to a garret in the Savoy. I asked him why he put me in prison, he called me a lying dog, and said I was in garrison, and indeed 'tis a garrison that may hold out till doomsday before I should desire to take it again."

A contemporary essay on the evils of recruitment, published a year after the play's first performance, calls the Savoy, London's military prison, which was used to house new recruits to prevent them running away, "the epitome of hell, more dreadful to the new-listed soldier than all the dangers and hardships of war".

Farquhar, an Irishman, is the English theatre's first Impressionist playwright, writing as directly and urgently from fresh experience as the French Impressionists painted from nature. He makes this experience tolerable to us, just about, and even lovable, because he invests it with a wild, anarchic humour and imagination such as we find, sometimes, in Fielding and Smollett, and always in Gogol.

For me, it is a kind of homecoming. My first experience of Farquhar's play was at one remove, when Brecht's Berliner Ensemble presented its adaptation, Trumpets and Drums, in its first London season. My second was the play itself, in the National Theatre's first season at the Old Vic, with my sister Lynn as Rose. It is a homecoming, too, because it brings me together with Annie Castledine, with whom I have worked often since Rosmersholm at the Young Vic, and with whom I plan to work again and again in the future (among our less ambitious plans is Oedipus Rex at Cambridge, in Greek).

And then, coming to Lichfield is itself a kind of homecoming, or a return. It is one way of acknowledging, even a little, the treasures that Lichfield has given us. Every city should have its theatre.

'The Recruiting Officer': 10-27 Sep; 'Resurrection': 2-18 Oct, Lichfield Garrick Theatre (01543 412121)