Theatre: The Kidman and the Hare
The Blue Room Donmar, WC2 Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick Lyttelton, SE1 Antony and Cleopatra Salisbury Playhouse
Sunday 27 September 1998
If you don't know the plot of The Blue Room, David Hare's version of Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen or La Ronde, then it's easy enough to pick up. In the first scene Kidman plays a teenage girl who screws a man (Glen), who in the second scene screws a woman, who in the third scene screws a man, who in the fourth scene screws a woman, who in the fifth scene screws a man, who in the sixth scene screws a woman, who in the seventh scene screws a man, who in the eighth scene screws a woman, who in the ninth scene screws a man, who in the 10th scene screws Nicole Kidman's teenage girl again. That is, the same beat over and over again: theatre's answer to Ravel's Bolero.
In this version, Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen play all the roles which gives us plenty of views of Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen in various states of undress. But the play's strength comes from the way we get to observe characters at every level of society engaged in the same sexual charade. Its energy lies in the gap between the diversity of the characters and the uniformity of their desires. This panoramic view is lost when the cast shrinks from 10 to two. They nip in and out of beds and costumes, and change hairstyles, accents and physical mannerisms. They do this very well. You feel The Blue Room would make a great tape to send to agents.
Nicole Kidman trembles, pouts and giggles, casts off clothes, drapes herself across bed linen and throws out witty glances of disappointment when the sex is too quick. With pre-Raphaelite looks and a slinky figure, Kidman cleverly suggests innocence and immaculate personal hygiene, on the one hand, and foxiness and low-down dirty fun on the other. She creates a strong sense of sexual desire. Most of it is directed at her from the male half of the audience. But 100 minutes is a long time to gawp, even at Nicole Kidman.
Schnitzler was a Viennese doctor and a contemporary of Freud's. What should hold our attention is the clinical fearlessness of his dissection of desire. But Hare the romantic has the wrong sensibility for the piece. The portraits of 'taxi driver', 'au pair', 'student', 'married woman', 'politician' are generic to the point of blandness. No scene matches the moment in To Die For in which Nicole Kidman seduces the schoolboy. The encounter between the aristocrat and the actress comes over as a 19th-century exchange in modern dress. The relationship between actresses - a quaint term in itself - and aristocrats has changed over 100 years. Today, some actresses turn out to be aristocrats. For the 1990s, too, the sexual sequence remains doggedly heterosexual. But then, you can hardly expect Nicole Kidman to jump into bed with herself.
With a bare stage, a brick wall and a cast of two, Sam Mendes directs away from his strengths. He's a dab hand at men in a working environment (the newsmen in The Front Page, the map-room in Othello). He falters when a man and a woman are alone in a room. He can't find a way to do the ambience. The surtitles that get projected on the wall, giving the length of time of each sexual episode, is a good example of a running gag which dies on its feet.
Kidman's only wavery moment in an accomplished performance comes at the curtain call when she gives a bashful smile and knocks her knees together as if caught between a curtsey and a bow. The question as to whether or not she has talent for the stage will have to wait until she moves out of a studio space, like the Donmar, and into a reasonable sized theatre that requires her to project. As I left, someone in the street asked for my ticket-stub as a souvenir. It was easy to see why. The ticket is hotter than the show.
The playwright Terry Johnson put Freud and Salvador Dal together on stage in Hysteria and Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joe di Maggio together in Insignificance. In Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, he takes us backstage with Sid James, Barbara Windsor and Kenneth Williams as they wait between takes on a Carry On film. Johnson's delightful play starts off full of wonderfully bad jokes and then, suddenly after the interval, turns elegiac.
Bill Dudley's design gives us a set within a set within a set. We look through the screen of an old Odeon cinema on to a back-projection of Pinewood Studios and into Sid James's trailer. Johnson cunningly uses these well- known figures as types against which he can draw out other surprising and poignant strands of their characters. At first sight, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor appear to be the lech, the queen, and the good-natured wench. But Sid James has fallen in love with Barbara Windsor, and Barbara Windsor loves her gangster husband and Kenneth Williams loathes appearing in another Carry On film. Only narcissism keeps him going.
Johnson directs an excellent cast. Samantha Spiro brings a lovely directness to the Windsor character without a hint of condescension. The gangly Adam Godley is hilarious as Williams, tilting his nose in the air as he whinnies with disdain. "The thing you admire most in a woman," he sneers at Sid James, "is yourself". Geoffrey Hutchings's Sid chases women in his white polo neck and white shoes and a chat-up line about passion fruit. He delivers his philanderer's wisdom as if through a blocked nose. "Don't get married," he tells Barbara Windsor "find someone you don't like and buy them a house." A funny, affectionate play, it makes you want to see another Carry On.
After a prologue in which reporters bring us up to date with events around the Mediterranean circa 40BC ("high jinks in the shadows of the Sphinx"), Michael Bogdanov nearly sinks his production of Antony and Cleopatra with a tricksy opening scene. Mercifully his modern dress production settles down into a persuasive account of negotiations and betrayals. While Cathy Tyson's Cleopatra might have shared more of the detail of her speeches with us, Tim Woodward's bearded Antony, in khaki and dark glasses, grows in authority as his character's stripped of it.
'The Blue Room': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732), to 31 Oct; 'Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick': Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 452 3000), to 28 Nov; 'Antony and Cleopatra': Salisbury Playhouse (01722 320333), to 3 Oct.
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