Theatre: The blonde enemy within

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The Independent Culture
JONATHAN KENT'S visually impressive revival of Plenty, David Hare's iconic 1978 play, refuses to buck the trend of casting non-English actresses in the central role. This is a major irony since Susan Traherne, whom the play follows from her idealistic Resistance work in occupied France to her mental disintegration in the 1960s - is supposed to symbolise how England won the war and morally lost the peace. She incarnates the terrible cost, to herself and others, of a life spent in resistance to the shabby compromises of post-1945 society.

In the wake of Kate Nelligan (Canadian) and Meryl Streep (American), we are now given the Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, who recently made such a magnificent job, in the movie Elizabeth, of redefining our perception of another pretty important example of English womanhood.

But the part of Susan badly defeats her. Indeed, if Kent had gone into the project with the express intention of exposing the weaknesses of what now looks to be a severely overrated play, I don't see what more he could have done - bar, say, cast Ms Blanchett's compatriot, Dame Edna Everidge, and subject her to comparably unprotective direction.

The play is full of reppy, smug satire of English diplomatic circles and other national types. The laughter this invites, though, is as repellantly clubby as the ethos it attacks. An actress needs to make you veer between sympathy for and alienation from Susan and her increasingly crazed, driven superiority to these folk. Her performance should keep you tantalised about the extent to which the character is, on the one hand, a victim of post-1945 disillusion and, on the other, a woman whose fiercely brandished wartime memories are a convenient cover for a pre-existing personality disorder: a constitutional inability to tolerate human intimacy except in the abnormal, ecstatic snatches of dangerous undercover work.

A lean, imposing blonde, Blanchett looks terrific in the mountingly chic frocks worn by Susan as she launches into a more and more hysterical psychiatric exhibitionism. But the actress's erratic, wildly over-italicised attempts at a posh English accent give her performance the air of being a parodic sabotage-job on Susan, as do the sudden alarming accelerations into doubled- up unintelligible apoplexy.

This, I'm afraid, is fatal to the seriousness with which one can take the proceedings. It's excessive to the point where you feel that three weeks trapped in a lift with Hedda Gabler would be a picnic compared to a brief drink with this head-case drag-act.

Plenty patronisingly spells out all its potential subtleties. It's as though the author thinks he's the only person in the country equipped with a moderate intelligence. In 1978, the play looked back at Suez and the moral betrayals of the post-war period. Now, from the perspective of another ethically dubious bout of foreign policy, we look back at that looking back. Hare wonders what the young will make of it. So do I.

Booking: 0171-369 1740. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper