National Theatre, Olivier
A wonderful evening of travesty — in Stoppard’s play, travesty of the modern detective mystery drama; in Sheridan’s, travesty of the old-fashioned sentimental-bombastic tragedy. There is a straight line from “O, Sophonisba, Sophonisba O!” (Lee’s Sophonisba, late seventeenth century) through Fielding’s Tom Thumb; the Tragedy of Tragedies — “O Huncamunca, Huncamunca O!” — to Sheridan’s “Oh Tilburina, Tilburina O!”. But you don’t have to know the history of British tragedy and the correlative history of plays about the theatre — rehearsal plays, essentially — to love these two productions. True, this audience is more likely to know the dramatic Agatha Christies and Anthony Shaffers enough to sense what fun Stoppard is making of them. But there is more to Stoppard’s play than that, in its Pirandellian crossing of the threshold, by the two critics in the audience, between art and “reality,” bringing them, and us, into a weird aesthetic world where reality and fiction simultaneously collide and meld together. A sense of puzzlement, of perplexity, here, on the order of Guildenstern’s (or is it Rosencrantz’s?) “Now you see me, now you . . . ” We are left to ponder the mystery, not the solution.
In a somewhat analogous way, Sheridan’s mock play, which actually takes us into the theatre on the stage, is getting at something else, namely, the productive tension between intelligent, reasonable human behavior and more instinctive aspects, such as the instinct for pleasure, for gratification. The Critic to a very great extent is about ego gratification, I now realize. “Actors are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” Mr Dangle protests early in the play, defending the theatre against the Philistine common-sensical know-nothing attitude of his wife, who thinks foreign affairs are the only thing. “And what may a man of sense study better?” And yet, the rest of the play, once we have arrived in the theatre, shows Mr Puff’s tragedy about the Spanish Armada decline into what Puff proudly calls for, “My noise, my trumpet, and my procession.” We laugh at the absurdity, and yet we are taken with the noise, trumpet (a really wonderful trumpet call from the six-piece orchestra), and enough processing to dazzle, delight, and satisfy anyone. What Sheridan’s comedy does, whether it is The Rivals or The Critic or another, is to allow human folly to show itself for all its foolishness and still survive. It understands, finally, and accepts the idea that we are selfish and must live with our selfish selves.
The two plays complement one another very well. Ian McKellen is brimful of energy into very upbeat roles, as the false Inspector Hound and as Mr Puff, the latter an extremely demanding role physically. There is a wonderful climax in which the battle with Spain is fought by miniature ships shooting caps (or whatever they are) at one another upstage, as cut-out seas roll, and then there is a big explosion and the whole set, wings, proscenium and all, comes tumbling down, ending in comic chaos. McKellen’s first entrance in the Stoppard is worth noting for its costume: he has big galoshes attached to inflated inner tubes to make his way through the marshes.