THE CRITICS : Scofield's return is a spellbinder

THEATRE
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IT'S A great build-up. Two sisters spend the first act talking about him while he restlessly paces the room above listening to a danse macabre. Then, when we see him, standing dimly lit in the gloom, a nattily dressed, erect figure, with snowy-white hair curling either side of his high forehead, he looks unassailable. After a 14-year absence, Paul Scofield returns to the National as the toweringly selfish figure of John Gabriel Borkman. His performance alone marks out Richard Eyre's production as a theatrical highlight of the year.

Scofield's sheer physical alertness is a shock (he's 74). He strides back and forth across the raked stage of Anthony Ward's elegantly distorted set, brooding on the collapse of the bank of which he was chairman and whose funds he embezzled, brooding on his five years in prison, and brooding on the eight years spent brooding since. He is a wolf prowling in a cage. The pent-up energy has to find an outlet.

A silk hanky flops out of his coat pocket. The deep creases either side of his nose lend him a monumental handsomeness. His sonorous voice carves words out greedily, sometimes in a curdled slur, as if shaking off a cold. He finds four vocal inflections in one "who?".

In Ibsen's penultimate play, Borkman, a miner's son, is one of life's aristocrats. When the portly clerk Foldal (a humorous portrait of benign foolishness by Michael Bryant) describes getting hit by a sleigh, Borkman dismisses him: "Everyone gets run over at some point in life." In his ruthless search for power, and "power over power", Borkman has destroyed the lives of two women, Ella, whom he should have married, and her twin sister Gunhild, whom he did.

In Eyre's production, these two - locked in a bitter sibling quarrel - couldn't be better cast. Eileen Atkins plays Mrs Borkman superbly, with a pale, pinched face, down-turned mouth and wide accusing eyes. Wringing her bony fingers, tugging at the shawl around her shoulders, she puts an acid spin on the most innocuous remarks.

As Ella, Vanessa Redgrave beautifully counterpoints her sister: softer, subtler and more emotional. Their arguments, as they fight over Borkman's son, Erhart (Oliver Milburn), are rich in history. Redgrave accuses Scofield of the worst crime of all: to enter a human heart, find love and kill it. Instead she covers Erhart with affection, but he has fallen in love with an older woman, Mrs Fanny Wilton (a luxuriant Felicity Dean), who sweeps out of the house trailing her fur-lined coat, having seductively threatened to send her young lover "little thought-waves through the air".

Eyre's powerfully focused production handles the transitions from the interiors to the snow-driven clearing in the forest with great finesse. All the elements - the fluent new translation by Nicholas Wright, the chilly lighting by Mark Henderson, the ethereal music by Dominic Muldowney - support this extraordinary cast. When Scofield approaches the edge of the stage, to speak of the kingdom he never acquired, he creates a quality of profound attentiveness. You leave the theatre hoping no one will speak and break the spell.

It's easy to see why Martin Guerre appealed to Alain Boublil and Claude- Michel Schonberg, creators of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Here is another love story set against a period of social upheaval. This time, religious wars divide the peasant communities in 16th-century France. Boublil and Schonberg are famously adept at putting an urgent musical pulse to strife and heartbreak, but in Declan Donnellan's stylistically insecure production the dramatic metronome has stopped ticking.

Guerre opens quietly, with the chorus of peasants miming the fact that they are at work. I assumed they were digging potatoes; though a forest seems to be an odd place for that. The peasants wear spruce costumes and tend to run around in orderly groups. An earthier atmosphere thankfully develops, with rhythmical stamping numbers that are vigorously choreographed by Bob Avian.

Designer Nick Ormerod has one main set: five timber structures that revolve into countless combinations. This shifts considerable emphasis on to David Hersey's lighting, which, though it creates mood and atmosphere expertly, can't do period. The medieval world in Martin Guerre is threadbare.

The story of Guerre works when it explores the mind of a man who adopts the name and the wife of a friend he has seen die in battle. It's a private, intimate mystery: a chamber musical, perhaps. The programme credits two book writers, one lyricist, one author of the original French text, two additional lyricists, one co-adaptor and one producer. Despite this line- up, the big moments and the big songs only intermittently coincide.

For half of the first act, as the plot's complexities unfold, we suffer information overload. It's 40 minutes before a genuinely dramatic song (the duet "Tell Me To Go"). As the wife, Bertrande, the beautiful Juliette Caton tells the impostor Iain Glen that he isn't her husband. He agrees. End of puzzle.

As Arnaud, Glen has heroic good looks and a sincere, affecting voice. Though he hasn't the power to let rip, Caton has - 10 years ago she played Young Eponine in the original Les Mis. When Guerre (Matt Rawle) returns (he survived the battlefield), all three central characters seem just too nice and middle-class for them not to be able to talk the whole thing out. It's left to poor Guillaume (Jerome Radon), whom Bertrande has rejected, to work overtime as the baddie.

Throughout, Guerre suffers from the laborious exploration of themes at the expense of the characters. There is the search for identity. Religious bigotry. The lies we all tell - when Glen is on trial as an impostor, the whole company face out to deliver a number where they stretch their hands towards us and sing that we are all impostors. Sure, sure. We know we are. Now get on with the story ...

There's a certain poignancy in seeing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Chichester, where Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and Sybil Thorndike had a historic success with it in 1962. For his absorbingly well-acted production, the director Bill Bryden uses a vivid new version by Mike Poulton. Bryden also assembles a starry - if not quite so starry - cast to perform in the Minerva studio.

Trevor Eve plays the doctor, Astrov, as a dashing, predatory figure, slyly asking the servant for the vodka. When he describes his life as a struggle through a forest on a dark night, the speech becomes a struggle through an alcoholic haze. It's a flamboyant, self-mocking performance.

Derek Jacobi is a natural Vanya, entering with a sigh, sighing again, saying something and yawning. He is wonderfully dithery: a past master at muttering a line while thinking about something else. When Jacobi envisages what life might have been like if he had married Yelena (Imogen Stubbs, tilting her head, pouting and staring into the far distance) the glass he pours himself keeps overflowing.

He is splendidly provoked by the tyrannical professor, Alec McCowen, who barks out his grouchy instructions with the appalling insistence of a baby that won't settle. Frances Barber creates real depths as the plain, practical Sonya, finally breaking down as she returns to the humdrum world of the estate accounts. Peggy Mount manages to be a serenely common- sensical nanny, knowing every row will pass, and the pellucid Constance Cummings stays as parched and papery as the pamphlets she reads. Recommended.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 10.

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