WHAT THE BUTLER CAME TO KNOW…
From its premiere at the Royal & Derngate and on the first leg of its tour, here is the stage version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker-winning novel. It is a melancholy reflection on mistakes made and a life wasted, through the eyes (and at last the heart) of a traditionally stiff-principled butler: Stevens, son and successor of an equally buttoned-up and undemonstrative father. He has devoted his life to the perfection of running a grand house (nicely suggested in sliding, grand framed panels by Lily Arnold and some moody lighting). He genuinely believes, or at the start still tries to, that he has had “the privilege of seeing the best of England from within these walls”.
But he didn’t. His lordly employer was, in the 30s, an appeaser of Hitler to the point of making Stevens sack chambermaids for being Jewish. This outrages Stevens’ closest friend the housekeeper Mrs Kenton, and widens the rift in their relationship – the only emotional tie he really has – until she leaves for an unsatisfactory marriage, and he must soldier on through the war years, his employer’s disgrace and death, and the postwar sale of the house to a cheerful American. Who, unlike past toffs, tells him to take the car and have a holiday going down west to visit his old friend Kenton, now separated.
Barney Norris, himself a master of melancholy and regret, has adapted Ishiguro’s book, and uncompromising direction by Christopher Haydon mingles the two periods, pre-and post-war, within same scenes, with little cueing except when the post-war excursion is largely set in a pub. That is fine, but it takes concentration. And as the butler, Stephen Boxer is given very little to express in the long first half, except in a blessed scene where with Kenton he unbends and admits to enjoying her company, albeit in the most proper way.
Boxer is, as always, brilliant (I drove to Bury for his sake absolutely, has never disappointed). He is subtle, deep-feeling, pinpoint-accurate in the moment. But it must be hard going: he does best in the scenes where the bombastic appeasers plot around him in the house and he stands aloofly loyal. Niamh Cusack, also the safest of hands, is livelier as the housekeeper and often very moving in her gentle friendly matronliness. But sometimes it feels as if she is in a different play from the grimly repressed butler, and indeed the terrible grandees.
So it is a relief when in the second half, the emotion explodes – as far as it ever can in such a man – and on his excursion to Dorset he meets again the woman who should have been his life’s love. The power of his struggle with emotion, his admission of wasted loyalties and loss, is rightly heartbreaking. It is a play about things not being said, directions not followed, love not expressed. Whether redemption is found in his admission of this, audiences have to decide. No trite happy ending is offered . So what we have here is a masterclass in acting, deft in direction and a rightful meditation on an England that so nearly went into the dark. But still, for all that, more of a novel than a play.
box office 01284 769 505 to 30 March,
– then touring to 25 May: Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge, Bristol