Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Entertainer

Postman’s Park

So last Saturday (my birthday, you know) I paid a flying visit to the capital city of this country wot I am Iiving in and ate food, drank wine, went to the theatre and did something old and something new. A suitable celebration for the likes of me! The something new was a visit to Postman’s Park, so-called because of its popularity with postal workers in the nearby GPO headquarters. It featured in the film Closer and has been famous since 1900 because of the wall of tiles, the George Frederic Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. The wording of the stories of everyday heroism reflects the age in which they were written, so there are some gruesome details which seem lurid today; but the overall effect is a moving testament to the bravery of ordinary people who leapt into danger to save others. Behind every word on every tile a whole other world is conjured.

The British Library

The something old on my birthday weekend was a visit to the British Library near King’s Cross on the way home. If I have a spare 30 minutes before a train going north I have regularly popped in to the Treasures Room at the Library and drooled over the Shakespeare First Folio, Jane Austen’s writing desk, the writings of Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens. This time I was excited to see stages of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea on display. And, memorably, we took a backstage tour to see the Reading Rooms, the Map Room, the book delivery system and learn about the building, its history, its capabilities, its ambition and its future. There are some things that are still great about Great Britain and the British Library is one of them. Thank you, Nigel, for the personal tour.

Don’t clap too loudly, it’s a very old building

In John Osborne’s The Entertainer, the Music Hall is a microcosm of the British Empire, a garish and confident entity that is nonetheless dying and fading. Christopher Oram’s set design for the Rob Ashford production starring Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice made the crumbling Empire visible throughout the running time so the dysfunctional family at the heart of the play is seen desperately trying to negotiate their futures amongst the wreckage. The family were played memorably: Gawn Grainger’s set-in-his-ways patriarch, Billy; Greta Scacchi’s loyal (second) wife, the drunken Phoebe; Sophie McShera’s politicised and simmering daughter Jean; and Jonah Hauer-King’s eager-to-please-his-dad but gullible son Frank. Seeing the play in 2016 made me think Osborne had underwritten the roles for Jean and Frank, perhaps giving too much voice to the cynicism of the older generation. Though the play was first staged in 1957 there are plenty of modern resonances to the politics of today, but most effective, I thought, was the sense of a family ploughing on through the confusions of modern times (“foreigners…. tax-evasion…. war-mongering…. the futility of political protest…. a crowd wanting entertainment not knowledge…. bread and circuses….”) The family were clinging on to elusive (and shifting) values that are constantly undermined and changed by the march of time. As all humans do.

Branagh and Olivier

Kenneth Branagh’s career has been an echo of Laurence Olivier’s in so many ways – directing films with great verve (far more than Olivier now), starring in key texts like The Winter’s Tale and The Entertainer and working as an actor-manager with some distinction. I have read about Olivier’s performance as Archie Rice so can only imagine its impact but feel Branagh successfully brought the monstrous old hoofer to life, creating an extra layer of faded glory in 2016 knowing that Olivier had also played the role. Archie is a sad, sad character whose attempts to stay chirpy and upbeat are tragic; he seems to have terrible self-knowledge – “I’m dead, just like the whole dumb, shoddy lot out there” – making the play itself seem to implode, as if the protagonist himself loses impetus and Great Britain (Archie Rice? the family? the Music Hall? the theatre? the town? the country? the continent? the world?) is an empty shell of what once was. Excellent production but not a feel-good play by any means. Somehow the productions of 400-year old Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale gave me more hope than Osborne’s more-modern text. The Branagh residency at the Garrick has been a fantastic achievement for the casts and production team involved so I hope that more actor-managers will manufacture opportunities like that in the future.