Monthly Archives: March 2019

BETRAYAL Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

POISONED LOVE

  I sometimes wish Harold Pinter had written more plays  like this:  decadent, agonized, helplessly sensitive to the nuances of friendship and treachery.  More praise has always met the political paranoia and over-relished bullying aggression of his other plays, long and short:     Jame Lloyd’s Pinter season has been a triumph.  But for me this was always going to be the treasure. 

 

      Ironically in 1978 it was not well reviewed -critical triumph – my friend and idol Benedict Nightingale was about the only one to spot how good it is.  It is the tale of a seven-year affair,  told backwards in a series of scenes from the guilty couple’s reunion over a drink two years after it ends, right back to its beginnings at a party nine years earlier.   It  had its moment of gossipy fame when we all learned how painfully close its story ran to his own affair – while married – with the equally married Joan Bakewell, whose husband (his close friend) then upset the playwright by revealing that he’d known for ages.  

 

      So here we have Charlie Cox as Jerry the interloper,   chirpy at first about how secret they were (“we were brilliant!”),  Zawe Ashton as his lover,  and Tom Hiddleston as her husband Robert.    Jamie Lloyd directs, in the best and subtlest bit of work of his I have yet seen:  slow-motion,  he gives such weight to the pauses  that you sometimes want to shout out the unspoken words which  each of these helpless, hopeless people should be uttering, if they were not trapped by their selves.   It is  starkly set in a whitish box with three chairs and, briefly, a table;  the protagonists mainly all on stage at once, though one watching,  left out, watchful;   brilliant use is made of the revolve, particularly when Hiddleston, enigmatic and restrained, circles around the lovers.  Once  as he moves past them unseen he is holding closely to his small daughter: the emotion, the sense of a family damaged,  is intense.  

 

    In the scene where he lunches with his rival he is briefly given a chance of volcanic anger,  all misdirected,  snapping at the waiter.  Here’s a man trapped inside masculinity, friendship, shame, bewilderment.  In fact Hiddleston, again in his best performance yet,  is the emotional core of the production.   Charlie Cox as Jerry is chirpy, unrepentant, proud of his own rhetoric (especially in that extraordinary last-but-first  scene where he declares his love in pretentious eloquence)  and striking in a different way.  If you take the parallels,   the play is painfully hard on Pinter himself .  Zawe Ashton’s Emma,  tall and rangy, loose-limbed and unconventionally sexy,  comes increasingly to seem like a pawn between them,  as the real energy is   emitted from the male friendship.  I have never seen a production of this play which made Pinter’s misogyny clearer.    But there is much else in it, worth picking up,  spiky with detail, reekingly honest about dishonesty.   

Box office 0844 871 7622, until June 1.

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE RUBENSTEIN KISS              Southwark Playhouse, SE1

 MARTYRS OF THE MCCARTHY YEARS

    

    Ideological hostilities across the world,   fake news and paranoia, a resurgent deep left,  uneasy relations with Russia, antisemites questioning the patriotism of Jews:  no bad time to revive James Phillips’ powerful play.   It is based on the 1950’s trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing details of the A-bomb to the Soviet Union.    Revulsion at McCarthyism and the electric chair provoked decades of liberal rage and campaigns to prove their innocence:   still later, records revealed that they probably were indeed doing it.  

       With little changed but names,   Phillips creates a play in the spirit of Arthur Miller:    about belief and betrayal, idealism and vanity, family shame and pride.   With deft timeshifts it is set half in their time, half in  the 1960s where the couple’s son falls for his cousin, daughter of the uncle whose evidence betrayed them.  Sometimes they  are onstage together,  the four elders like ghosts;  sometimes round a very significant table.    As Joe Harmston’s long, careful production swings into its second act, you can hardly breathe for tension and pity.  

 

           But it takes time. I must be honest and say that the first half didn’t engage me fast enough.  Henry Proffit, long and lean and scholarly,  is a marvellous Jakob,  every generation’s dangerous academic idealist;  his passion is reflected back to him in Ruby Bentall’s fragile romantic Esther, forever singing snatches of opera because it “makes working people big inside”,  while her bluff brother complains that it is bourgeois and Italian a “fascist language”.   But in that first act the growing relationship of the young people drags a bit,  and it is only after the interval that we get an electric, eloquent,  Milleresque piece I would kick myself to have missed. 

 

        Never mind.  When Stephen Billington as the FBI agent Cranmer engages with Jakob then Esther,  pity and terror crackle as violently as Matthew Bugg’s menacing soundscape.  Cranmer says his  war service was against  “the enemies of my country”;   Jakob, excused the draft on health grounds,  only wanted to “fight Fascists”.  It’s a telling distinction:    the Soviets after all were allies.   Deeper division is philosophical and practical:   trying to persuade them to make a deal and talk  Cranmer cites Stalin’s murders  while Jakob refuses to believe it.  To Esther’s proud “we have courage because of our convictions” Cranmer cries “you are dying for a lie…you will orphan your son for an idea!” . Jakob piously returns “Ideas are more important..I can’t deny the man I have spent my life trying to become”.   With ten days to go before execution,  Esther’s operatic preoccupation makes her sing “Un bel di” from Madam Butterfly and vaunt her “pure hope” to the interrogator;  the FBI agent exasperatedly begs “don’t wait for the white ship in the harbour, Esther!” .

  

    Echoes of Antigone, of Joan of Arc of the perilous streak of vanity in martyrdom.  It is  reflected again as 25 years later  when Katie Eldred as the niece confronts her father with a half-hearted suicide attempt.  Phillips is grimly aware of every irony:  when Jakob (more scared than his wife) shudders about the inhumane horror of his coming death,   we sharply remember his insouciant blindness about Stalin.  The coda, with a final physical reveal and a still more ironic decision by Dario Coates as the son Matthew,  leaves you reeling.      

box office 020 7407 0234 | www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

to   13 april

RATING  THREE

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ALYS ALWAYS Bridge, SE1

A GOAD FOR THE GLITTER-ARTY 

  

  Late to the party, due to holiday,  but Couldn’t miss Nicholas Hytner’s bit of mischief :    after  his years of being being alternately feted and rubbished in print,  he displays directorial glee in sending up the noisome denizens of a broadsheet arts desk. Lucinda Coxon’s black-hearted comedy of modern media manners is the tale of a mousy newspaper underling, Frances,  who happens to be first on the scene on an icy Suffolk night when Alys,   lovely wife of a celebrated writer,  is killed (it’s a hauntingly staged car crash for those of us who drive icily home from Manningtree most theatre nights, I winced).  But in the world Frances inhabits, a celebrity tragedy is a foothold.  

     

    The play’s eye is pitilessly sharp.   Sylvestra le Touzel is a queen-bee book editor,  snarling at the idly bitchy Oliver (Simon Manyonda)  “I pay you to party with the PRs”;   Manyonda “a good writer when he bothers” chucks books straight in the bin and hoovers up freebies;  Frances is everyone’s dogsbody,  the rarely-seen Editor obsessed with “clicks and pods”,  and they are all afflicted by  hot-desking and wistful longings for a Russian with a cheque-book.  Sacked,  Oliver snarls “the ship’s sinking, one rat leaving won’t change that”.     Gales of giggling met lines about the meretricious dazzle of arts -cum-celebrity  media and its familiar  rumours of nobodies whose novel got optioned by Spielberg; Alys’ memorial service is crammed with broadsheet-editors, style icons and Melvyn Bragg.   Satisfyingly niche:  wish I’d been there on press night, because  it’s not so much ‘preaching the the choir’  as putting sneezing-powder on the pews, setting fire to its hymn-books and blaspheming its saints. 

 

         Joanne Froggatt’s Frances ably meets the feline subtlety  of the text:  she is kind and humane with the dying woman in the Suffolk darkness, like  any nice girl;  but asked by the police to meet the family and tell about the mother’s last words she refuses.  Until she learns how famous they are, goes, and can’t resist embroidering sentimentally .   She becomes a mentor by the daughter (a nice ghastly rich-teen turn by Leah Gayer) and joins the great and good in their gorgeous second home by the sea.   As she turns to narrate asides to us  – it’s very novelistic –   Froggatt’s little shrugs of rising satisfaction at each opportunist success is perfect.   So  is the way her editor suddenly treats her with respect. 

 

      In the interval one fears that part 2 might be less beguiling,  as her expedition into the Kite family’s glittering lives reveals (quelle surprise) that all was not idyllic after all and the great man himself is up for a fling.   But Coxon has  wicked  fun  with the spoilt rich kids ,  the self-absorbed writer ,  and our heroine’s ever deeper encroachings into the dead Alys’ life and possessions (an artful Manderley theme here, but with a savvier heroine so closer to All About Eve).  When her annexation of the great writer becomes deeper (“Second shot at happiness for tragic brainbox”  cries the Mail-Online) she has new decisions to make.  Like how useful a conquest he really is,  this nicely moth-eaten Robert Glenister who ooofs! at his bad back and  reaches, as the arts journos point out,  the  stage of “sciatica and falling sales” .   But once Frances has changed the locks against his children, copped the Arts Ed job and had her editor to dinner,  she may not stick it as long as patient Alys.  Why would you? 

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.  to 30 March

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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