A tale of two play-readings
By MICHAEL CAINES
"Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts." I've had that line from the prologue to Henry V quoted at me twice in the past week. Once by Ian McKellen, at the launch of the BFI's Shakespeare on Film season, and a second time by Philip Wilson, the director of a staged reading on Thursday afternoon, at the Pleasance Theatre in north London – a staged reading that was also the première of a Terence Rattigan play, Like Father, which has apparently languished unread since the 1960s . . . .
It's possibly a good time to be rediscovering Rattigan. Here's what John Stokes wrote in the TLS about Kenneth Branagh's recent revival of Harlequinade at the Garrick Theatre:
"Despite some mawkish tributes to the lovable 'madhouse' that is theatre . . . Harlequinade offers genuine theatrical enjoyment. It’s genuine because it feels authentic and because it is closely bound up with our sense of period. A once-lost playwright has been returned to us and he now looks indispensable, a truth-teller of the mid-twentieth century. Who would dare say that his status is undeserved?"
What a change that is. In his own lifetime, Rattigan had survived the cull of the playwrights that the Second World War very efficiently carried out on the side; the inter-war theatre world in which he'd made his name (with his Riviera farce, and first real hit, French without Tears in 1936) had gone, but still his plays were produced. The first production of The Deep Blue Sea (1952) ran for over a year in the West End. After that, however, came the crash, as Rattigan was compared unfavourably with the younger guns such as John Osborne and Harold Pinter. "Two superb craftsmen", he once noted of those two, by the way: "both writers of exceptionally well-made plays. They'd be annoyed if anyone suggested otherwise".
Like Father, the play I saw on Thursday afternoon, is one of the casualties of that grand falling-out-of-fashion: it seems that Rattigan put it aside in order to concentrate instead on Man and Boy (1963), about a ruthless financier and his socialist son. Like Father is a comic turning of those tables: the father, a hard-drinking Bloomsbury artist called Bert Leavensworth who is of the (Old) Left, the son Augustus (named for his artist-godfather . . .) who is frightfully bourgeois, and harbours no more horrific urge than his dream of one day qualifying as a chartered accountant. Like Father also bears a family resemblance to After the Dance (1939), in which the older folks are permanently sozzled, the younger lot strait-laced, and In Praise of Love (1973), featuring an Old Left dad and a Liberal Party son. One of Rattigan's gifts, though, is for seeing new and entertaining ways round such inter-generational differences. This unperformed play is like the Prodigal Son through the looking-glass, as Bert pours brandy after brandy, and Augustus tips his into the pot plants.
Only there are no pot plants, because this is a staged reading, after a morning's rehearsal. Roger Allam (pictured above not in Like Father itself but in similar mode) gives a characteristically assured, irascible turn as Bert – I've never heard such disdain for the world beyond central London packed into the aspiratory moment before somebody unwillingly pronounces the word "Horsham". Now I've seen the version with him and the rest of the cast – Heather Craney as his ex-stripper girlfriend (whose good heart makes a contrast to the snobbish portrayal of the financier's ex-chorus girl and gold-digger in Man and Boy), Emily Barber, Suzanne Burden, James Holmes, Luke Newberry and Rupert Vansittart. I have to list them; it was a historic performance, surely? And now I've seen the "Piece out our imperfections . . ." version, I'd like to see a producer boldly take this into the West End, where Rattigan belongs.
I confess: I do like a play-reading. There was one at Dr Johnson's house last Sunday, in fact. Directed by Lois Potter, our not-so-professional troupe also had a play to rescue from obscurity – Irene by Dr Johnson himself.
Unlike Rattigan, Johnson can boast no great history of theatrical success, survival and going out of fashion. He began writing Irene around 1726, I'm told, basing it loosely on an episode in Richard Knolles's General History of the Turks (1603). It wasn't performed until 1749, when Johnson's former pupil David Garrick staged it at Drury Lane with an excellent cast, magnificent sets and costumes, and plenty of variety in the way of entertainments around Johnson's tragedy, to keep the punters coming. It lasted nine days, which isn't bad going at all for the period (and would have meant Johnson was paid a few times over, I guess, on the author's "benefit nights"). I'd read it and seen extracts with some of the same cast performed to general amusement at Johnson's old Oxford college, Pembroke, at a conference last year. This time round, we performed the whole play, for a very indulgent audience, and tried to play it seriously.
It tells, after all, of Constantinople occupied by the Turks in 1453; the Emperor Mahomet falls in love with the Irene of the title and tempts her into ditching her Christian faith with the prospect of ruling the world alongside him. She takes it all quite well, really:
"Can Mahomet's imperial hand descend
To clasp a slave? or can a soul, like mine,
Unus'd to pow'r, and form'd for humbler scenes,
Support the splendid miseries of greatness?"
Of course, things don't turn out so well for our apostate heroine; she is led off at the end to be strangled by two murderous mutes. (I know because I played one of them.)
The thing is, without wishing to kid anyone about our Roger Allam-like acting skills, it all appeared to be going so well, and the more so because there were some good actors in the cast whom you could, you know, take your cue from. We felt we'd done Johnson proud. But at the end, as the audience politely applauded, and the company prepared to disperse, one of the actors said with conviction, and not especially sotto voce: "Never again!"
That was the biggest laugh of the night.