First Night: Look back in perplexity at a parody that hides the heroics

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'PLENTY' ALBANY THEATRE LONDON JONATHAN KENT'S fluent, visually impressive revival of Plenty, David Hare's iconic 1978 play, does not buck the trend of casting non- English actresses in the daunting central roles.

This continues to be a major irony, since Susan Traherne - whom the play follows from her idealistic Resistance work in occupied France through to her mental disintegration in the Sixties - is supposed to symbolise how England won the war and lost the peace. She is also earmarked to incarnate the terrible cost, to herself and others, of a life spent in less glamorous resistance to the shabby compromises of post-1945 society.

Following Kate Nelligan (Canadian) and Meryl Streep (American), we now have the Australian Cate Blanchett who recently made such a magnificent job in the film Elizabeth of redefining our perception of another pretty emblematic English woman. 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 do not see what more he could have done bar, say, cast Blanchett's compatriot, Dame Edna Everage and direct her as badly as this.

The play is full of smug, repellent parodies of English Foreign Office and other types. An actress needs to make your response oscillate between sympathy for and alienation from Susan and her increasingly mad, driven superiority to these folk.

Her performance should keep you tantalised about the extent to which she is, on the one hand, a victim of post-1945 society and on the other a woman whose brandished war-time memories are a convenient cover for a pre-existing constitutional inability to tolerate human intimacy except in the abnormal, ecstatic snatches she enjoyed in her allegedly heroic undercover work.

A lean, imposing blonde, Blanchett looks terrific in the increasingly chic frocks worn by Susan as she gives vent to a more and more hysterical exhibitionism. The trouble, though, is that the unnaturalness of 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 am afraid is fatal to the seriousness with which one can take the proceedings. Three weeks stuck in a lift with Hedda Gabler would, one reckons, be a picnic compared with a brief drink with this Susan.

Plenty is, in any case, the kind of play where just when you have cottoned on to an interesting dramatic tendency (the significant fact, say, that every time Susan mentions the war, it is in the vicinity of a lie), Hare patronises you by having a character loudly spell the point out.

In 1978, the play looked back at Suez and the moral accommodations of the post-war period. Now, in 1999, from the perspective of another ethically dubious conflict (albeit less so), we look back at that looking back. Hare wonders what the young will make of it. So do I.