OPERA’S THE THING! YOUR LIFE IS BUT A SIDESHOW! HURRAH!
A play about the foundation of Glyndebourne Opera – “Snobs on the grass” as some cruel postwar journalist wrote? Tartan picnic rugs, Fortnums’ hampers, corporate networking? By David Hare?? Get away with you!
Yet this is a heart-soaring, joyful and sad and humane piece, and if it doesn’t follow Hampstead’s other recent triumphs and storm the West End, I’m a tartan picnic-rug. It was after Hare dramatized his his jaundiced memories of a constipated 1962 public-school in “South Downs” that the producer, Byam Shaw, suggested he take on the story of how John Christie, an eccentric wartime soldier and Eton science master, inherited the estate in the early ‘30s and decided to build an opera house and a festival. The “moderate soprano” of the title is his wife, the singer Audrey Mildmay, who he besieged with gifts and flowers until she married him: he was already fifty. Ironically she died before him, leaving him bereft. For the festival seasons he recruited Rudolf Bing, Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert: its a memory-play of the interaction of the five, of Christie’s explosive energy and his love story.
It is glorious. Simple in a way, discursive as characters speak their memories in between scenes. Sometimes it is very funny, at times profoundly sad. For what Hare makes of John Christie’s story is not “heritage theatre” but a hymn to art and its ambiguities, an elegy for the passing of life and a portrait of a man who is energetic, self-willed, choleric, impassioned. Sometimes Captain Mainwaring, sometimes almost Eric Morecambe, he is absurd but awe-inspiring, a “character’ but also a deep and needy personality. Roger Allam is perfection: chubbed-up, in a bald wig, here is the bluff reckless middle-aged soldier who one night in Bayreuth discovered “the sublime – until I heard that music I had no idea who I was”. Line upon line he delights: “Hate music-lovers, awful people, do nothing but complain – but I love music!”.
With his team assembled and the first season coming, he reacts with explosive horror to Bing and Busch telling him it can’t be Wagner – “you’ve built a jewel box, not an epic theatre” and shudders at the thought of Mozart, in the immortal line – “He may be great but is he any GOOD? Samey, jangly, it’s all servant-girls and awful giggling and big wigs”. As for his furious insistence that operagoers must pay heavily, wear boiled shirts and get on a train to deep Sussex on a working day, it is superb, and nobody could deliver it like Allam. These damn people must, he says, not just fiddle around with “ telephones and whatever they do in offices” then ‘take in a show’. They must accept “It’s their lives that are the sideshow! Opera’s the thing! And if it uses up their time and wipes out their savings so be it!”. And you know what – I was sort of with him there…
Nancy Carroll is a perfect foil as Audrey, sinking her identity and her art in his explosive will, loving him, her postwar decline tragic. Paul Jesson and Nick Sampson react wonderfully as Busch and Ebert, and George Taylor is a sinuous,sardonic Rudolf Bing. Who had to spend the war years working in Peter Jones, and only felt at home in the hair salon because its febrile atmosphere was most like opera – “I love hysteria…Nietzsche said, for art there must be frenzy”. The frenzy of a tubby, determined man with a yearning for sublimity receives, in this lovely play, the respect that it should.
Box office 020 7722 9301 www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 28 Nov