Farewell to the Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, London
The specialist subject of American playwright, Richard Nelson, is the tension in the so-called Special Relationship between the UK and the US.
He often dramatises this by exploring the awkward and painfully comic cultural collisions between their theatre and ours. Roger Michell, before he moved into film-making, directed excellent productions of a couple of these pieces: Some Americans Abroad !1989), about a group of cringe-makingly Anglophile academics on a theatre-crawl and Two Shakespearean Actors (1990) centred on the 1849 riots in New York that were sparked by the rivalry between local hero, Edwin Forrest, and the celebrated English tragedian, Charles Macready, then visiting Broadway.
Michell once again turns up trumps with a production exquisitely attuned to the Chekhovian mix of rueful melancholy and sharp-eyed objectivity about the absurd that is be found in Farewell To The Theatre. Set in and around a boarding house in Williamstown, 1916, this new work almost combines elements from its two predecessors in that it is an agonising comedy; it deals a group of people (here English) who are stranded far from home; and it tells the story of the disastrous effect of a visit from a theatrical bigwig. The luminary in question here is Harley Granville Barker (1847-1946), the director-dramatist who for complex reasons abandoned the practical side of theatre in mid-life, after he'd established many revolutionary principles - the need for an ensemble: the primacy of the author over the actor-manager; the goal of uncluttered expressiveness in the staging of Shakespeare etc - that are the foundation on which we still build.
Drop-dead handsome (like Barker) and radiating languid irony and emotional reserve, Ben Chaplin is a superb in the role of protagonist we find on the American college lecture circuit (along with Jason Watkins's endearing Frank Spraight, a Dickens recitalist). Sunk in sardonic disillusion, Barker is in a personal and professional limb, neither divorced from his famous actress wife, not married to the second spouse whose wealth would hasten the early retirement. The play takes place just before and after a performance by the all-male students of Twelfth Night and it boast some lovely performances (especially from Gemma Redgrave and Tara Fitzgerald). But the echoes of the Shakespeare feel contrived; the presentation of Barker through his effect on a campus squabble feels faintly too non-momentous; and the happy-ish Mummers' Play ending unearned.
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