April 24, 2000: Nichols, Passion Play

Donmar Warehouse, London

A revival of a play from the early Eighties. It bore revival, despite a caviling review by Christopher Morley in the International Herald Tribune. The Donmar Warehouse is a small, tight theatre with nearly vertical seating on three levels — floor and two galleries, two or three rows deep in each case. An excellent, intimate playing space with fine acoustics.

       A play about sexual passion, or the lack of it, and its dubious relationship to love (whatever that might be) — as a testament to how various, and inconclus­ive, are the relations between married couples, friends, and others. Nichols’s central device is to give each of the members of the central couple an alter ego: James/Jim; Eleanor/Nell. These alters appear early, in the second scene, and remain throughout the play. They do not relate to one another, are not even aware of the alter’s existence; they often say out loud things that don’t bear articulation in civil conversation: hidden or unmentionable thoughts and feelings — passions; but they do much more than merely hover over the shoulder of the primary character. They participate in the “mental action” of the play, acting out the primary character’s motives and desires. There is a danger in this format of merely exemplifying a kind of Freudian subconsciousness in articulation and action, but Nichols skillfully avoids any hint of formula. This double action enriches the valences of the play, makes it more interesting and more comic (not comical; not comedic, as my students prefer to say). That is, we laugh at the nearly constant indication of the gap between ostensible coherence — the face the character puts on to meet the faces that he or she meets — and the more complex reality that tends to undercut or contradict (but not to invalidate) what is being expressed on the surface. O’Neill tried this idea out earlier, in The Great God Brown and Strange Interlude, with ponderous results; but O’Neill had no sense of humor and failed to see how close, in his hands, this “Freud-was-right-after-all” technique came to bathos or unintentional farce. Nichols’s hand is much more sure; a neat trick, but he pulls it off.

       And he does so because his characters are simultaneously well differentiated and subordinated to a viable comic idea: we make our own lives livable by making the best of an incoherent, potentially contradictory, and indeterminate interaction with others. At the end Nell is carrying on with the holiday festivities while Eleanor, suitcase in hand, stands poised at the opposite diagonal of the stage, on the point of leaving her adulterous husband James. But she doesn’t go; instead, she and Nell look at one another, in a long moment of suspended animation.

That says it all, or says it well enough. One reason Nichols’s stratagem of dual identities works so well is that the alter egoes tend to take on an independ­ent life of their own and are themselves rather complex entities. To the other characters they are, alternatively, a transparent, undifferentiated representation of the original character or an invisible presence acknowledged only by the original character herself or himself. We, as audience, see it all, and we are sophisticated enough to follow the action when the alter ego shifts from transparent to opaque mode.

Morley missed all of this; as I’ve noted elsewhere, he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps. He is all in favor of a long-overdue revival of Nichols, but he is not up to the demands of this subtle yet boldly stated animadversion on the rigors and potential pitfalls of modern middle-class life, even when it is so ably acted by a first-rate cast and very skillfully mounted by a director, Michael Grandage, who has used every inch of this oversize postage-stamp stage to good effect.

The casting was also quite fine. The “Jim,” alter ego of James, was of an age (late middle age) with his reference character, yet more athletic, more animated, and with a notably large libido. Nell, Eleanor’s counterpart, was blonde and more buxom, in contrast to Eleanor, a brunette and of slim physique. We have seen some of these actors before. James Laurenson (James) was the Benedict Night­ingale in the National Theatre production of Arcadia. I saw the Kate, Nicole Walker, a few years back in the Royal Court The Libertine. And the Eleanor, Cheri Lunghi, we also saw in Arcadia. Oh, yes, and James Laurenson was the Harry in the Haymarket A Delicate Balance of two years back. Several of them are winners or nominees for best actor awards. And here they are playing for what cannot be much money in a 250-seat (my guess) theatre, and playing expertly and willingly. No wonder London theatre is so wonderful! The plays we have seen have ranged from surpassingly fine to very good (only one, Cressida, fell into that last category), and the acting has been almost uniformly excellent and at times transcendently fine (I’m thinking of Henry Goodman as Shylock, the two actors in The Island, Ralph Fiennes as King Richard II, the Nina in Seagull, and David Bryant in Summerfolk, which had two dozen fine actors in it).



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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