When Kathleen cosied up to us
Sunday 06 July 1997
When the famous actress gets to baring her soul, and later on baring her breasts, does she think there are just a couple of us listening in or is she aware that she's in the presence of hundreds? If it's the latter, it's one hell of an apartment. Tallulah is happy to talk to her friends on the phone and happy to talk to her "friends" in the audience. She even offers one of us - as if we'd drifted into a panto - some of her scent. We know she's promiscuous, but there's a limit to the number of different relationships you can have with the same audience.
As the outspoken Broadway star, in Sandra Ryan Heyward's first play, premiered at Chichester, Kathleen Turner gives a raucous, funny, full- blown performance: dirty laugh, generous smile and - when she sings snatches of popular tunes - a touchingly smokey voice. This is the late 1940s, when she was appearing in Cocteau's The Eagle Has Two Heads and Marlon Brando has been fired. From the moment she appears in David Jenkins's luxurious set - piano, dressing table, and double bed in front of a tilted proscenium arch - Turner is keen to impress on us that we are darlings, exciting people, dear friends. Not since Barbra Streisand unburdened her feelings to me (and, OK, 12,000 others) at the Wembley Arena have I felt so privileged. When Tennessee Williams rings up, Tallulah tells him that she's talking to us. They chat for a while. He isn't happy. Tallulah cheers him up by singing "Bye-bye Blackbird" down the phone. So much for Southern manners. She said she had guests. Tennessee should have called back later.
In Michael Rudman's lively production, Turner pours drinks, paces the room, sprawls on her bed, answers the phone, tosses back her blonde hair, and talks of life, loves and VIPs in a voice that's "lower than a foghorn on a tug-boat". We see her before and after a fund-raising do for President Truman. When the phone is silent, snatches of piano filter through the curtain, prompting - along with more swigs of champagne - revelations, jokes and acting tips. Her mother, we learn, was the most beautiful woman in Alabama. She died giving birth to Tallulah, and Tallulah's father, the Speaker in the House of Representatives, could never forgive his daughter. Here champagne performs the same facilitatory role as Professor Anthony Clare.
Heyward fillets most of the best lines from the biographies and memoirs. Some are very funny. Bankhead, who described herself as "pure as driven slush", defends her bisexuality on the grounds that there aren't enough men in New York. But if I didn't warm to Heyward's play - in spite of Turner's forceful performance - it was because the format was phoney. The false chumminess of the one-way conversation she has with the audience ("Let me ask you something ... "; "Where was I?", "Am I talking too much?") lacked the candour of its subject.
Forty-two years ago Peter Hall directed an unknown play in a small theatre off Leicester Square which was dismissed by Bernard Levin (among others) as "twaddle". Last week at the Old Vic, Sir Peter returned to Waiting For Godot, the play he introduced to the English-speaking world. Without having seen the original, I'm confident the main difference between the productions lies in the audience. This time we have been well briefed. We are in on the joke from the start.
For the first 20 minutes of this splendidly clear revival, the dishevelled duo of Vladimir and Estragon score more laughs than Felix and Oscar do in The Odd Couple. We find ourselves watching a recognisable domestic relationship, like a stale middle-aged marriage, where every conversation has been had before, but that doesn't stop either side from going on and on. We respond to this immediately - drawn in by the compellingly interdependent relationship established between Alan Howard (Vladimir) and Ben Kingsley (Estragon). Both adopt Irish accents, locating Beckett's play in a literary tradition, if not in an actual place. The Good Book is the "Boible".
Howard has the bruised tenderness of a man nursing a hangover. He sucks in his body, recoiling from imaginary blows, his lowered eyelids giving him the distant gaze of an actor in a Western. The tremulous musicality of his voice ensures that nothing is thrown away: at times he might be leading the responses at Evensong. Kingsley is more at home with the snappy reversals of Beckett comedy. He has an innocent beadiness, a small man's rapid intensity - almost a Chaplinesque sprightliness at times, as he shadow-boxes enthusiastically while Vladimir takes a leak off-stage. They are well supported by Denis Quilley's spruce, finger-wagging Pozzo, and Greg Hicks's puffing, salivating Lucky. For all its originality, you wonder as Godot progresses, or rather doesn't progress, whether Beckett hasn't reached some kind of bleak outpost: one that narrowly separates "less is more" from "less is less".
Terry Eagleton's Disapperances, which opened last week at the Salisbury Playhouse, is about the competing claims made on a disting- uished if drunken Afro-Caribbean poet (played with Wellesian gusto by Rudolph Walker). It deserves a wider audience than the dozen or so who saw it with me. Eagleton, a Professor of English at Oxford University, may sketch in his characters more briskly than some full-time dramatists, but the provocative, paradoxical arguments - which lampoon the sentimental illusions that exist between the West and developing countries - have a welcome breadth. Jonathan Church's nicely cast production has good performances from (among others) Shalonne Lee as the radical daughter, Tyrone Huggins as the politician trying to persuade Walker to get involved with his country's politics ("Presidents are a matter of symbolism. What better job for a poet?") and Michael Stroud as the slyly euphemistic M16 official. Someone should send this out on a tour.
'Tallulah!': Chichester Festival (01243 781 312; 'Waiting For Godot': Old Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6655); 'Disappearances': Salisbury Playhouse (01722 320333).
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