Lyric (Shaftesbury). Directed by Guy Retallack
I read the script of the play late last night, and it had a very powerful effect on me, only partly because of the sudden though not entirely unprepared murder of the central character, Isobel, in what I thought must be the last scene of the play but turned out to be the penultimate. I think it factored itself into some things I’ve been mulling over about my own life and its problems. In any case, it is one of Hare’s most powerful and emotionally complex yet transparent plays that I have seen or read. I don’t usually make a point of reading the play — a new play, or a modern play I don’t know — before seeing it in performance; usually, in fact, it’s the other way around: I buy the text of the play because I enjoyed the performance and want to read it to experience the work again or to have it available for future reference.
It is surely a fine, very well-crafted play, with a transparency of dialogue that shows Hare working at top form. The characters and their interconnection are absorbing in their deft differentiation and their opaqueness to one another. An aspect of the play that makes it so compelling is that these people do not understand each other well at all and, with the singular exception of Isobel, the younger daughter of the now deceased antiquarian book dealer who has left a young wife, Katherine, behind, they are opaque to themselves as well.
A measure of Hare’s masterful craftsmanship is that the six personages have a convincing complexity that confers on them a certain autonomous reality, and yet at the same time they serve a certain thematic coherence that gives the play its force, its moment, and its orientation toward a mordant kind of catastrophe.
Isobel is a consciously “good” character who comes to a bad end, murdered by her colleague, Irwin Posner, with whom she has been in love but has fallen out of love, leaving him totally unmoored and feeling a complete loss of self-worth. In an interview published in the program Hare says he wrote the play very quickly once he had clarified the basic story line or organizing idea: “that good people bring out the worst in all of us.” “Chaos” is another word for the result of this presence of a good person in our midst. Everyone else is trying to live for himself or herself, but they are pulled into a kind of maelstrom by the irresistible force of goodness exuded by a single character .
The time of the play, the late 1980s, was a time not unlike our own, when self-aggrandizement seemed to be the unwritten law of the land, both for governments and for society as a whole. Everyone in the play — Isobel’s older sister, Marion, a junior member of the Conservative cabinet; her husband Tom, a born-again Christian who says he never gets angry but who doesn’t let his religious scruples stand in the way of building and expanding his company, which includes a heartless takeover (called “asset stripping” by Isobel) of Isobel’s small book-design company; Irwin Posner, Isobel’s business associate, who loves her dearly but betrays her by allowing himself to get swept up in the corporate swim; Rhonda Milne, a bright but shallow follower and seizer of the main chance, a subordinate lackey of Marion’s; and, the star candidate for trouble-making, Katherine Glass, Isobel and Marion’s father’s young wife, a loose cannon full of life but totally lacking in self-control and self-esteem — everyone in the play, that is, except Isobel herself, who appears to be afflicted with the lust for power, for place, for money. Isobel, an extraordinarily selfless person in some ways, befriends Katherine, makes a commitment to her (as she vainly tries to explain to Irwin in the next-to-last scene) and keeps that commitment even though Katherine betrays her at almost every step. In the process of fulfilling that commitment she herself finds herself betrayed by Irwin, who has an admitted neurotic dependence on Isobel to validate his self-worth, loses her love for him, and, in a way she herself acknowledges is quite uncharacteristic of her, breaks off with Irwin — and as a result loses her life when, as she exits her father’s house, barefoot, to call the police and remove Irwin as the intruder she now judges him to be, he shoots her through the just-closing door five times at point-blank range.
One of the two epigraphs Hare supplies for his play, printed in both the text and the program, is a comment by Rebecca West (who had been dead only five years when the play was produced in 1988): a description of humankind as deeply divided between that part of us that is sane, loves pleasure, wants to live a long life in peace “in a house that we built,” and another part, “nearly mad,” that prefers the bad to the good, likes pain and despair, and wants to die in destructive catastrophe that leaves only the “blackened foundation” of the house. Hare’s characters are, it seems, divided in just this way. They have impulses of which they know or understand nothing. They are mysteries to themselves and, Hare admits, to him in some ways as well. The play begins and ends with mourning and a funeral, and, though funny here and there along the way, the laughter it produces is sardonic, or a response to the satiric, at any rate, and not hearty or life-affirming.
The title itself has a decidedly ironic ring. Hare explains in the program interview that the “secret rapture” is what a nun feels, it has been said (though the source of the saying seems irrecoverable), in the moment of consummation with the Bridegroom, Christ — that is, in the moment of death. Set in the context of the play, this casts Isobel as a kind of unwitting nun-like Bride; but we are not privy to what her thoughts and feelings are at the moment when the five bullets pierce the door and take her life. “Everyone keeps trying to tell me what I feel,” she complains at one point, when the fact is that is just their own feelings coming into play. No one, at least, can pretend to know the secret of whatever rapture, as she passes out of the body into heaven or into nothingness, Isobel experiences. That is for her to know and for us only, and presumptuously, to surmise.
The settings, six in number, have been designed on the principle of the simpler and more fluid, the better. There is a double proscenium frame, in a neutral grey, the nearer one at the actual proscenium line, the other half-way upstage. When they frame the centrally placed doorway into the dead Robert Glass’s bedroom at the beginning and again, near the end, when they frame the doorway of Robert’s living room through which Isobel will pass to her instant death, they achieve not only a near-symmetry of visual effect but a kind of thematic enclosure as well and even hint at a kind of recession toward infinity. The other scenes — the lawn of Robert’s house (ii), Isobel’s office (iii), Robert’s living room (iv, vii, viii), Isobel’s new offices (v), and Tom’s office (vi) — are shifted on smoothly from left or right, alternatively, by means of a moving platform built into the stage floor (there must be a technical name for this — chariot, I think**), while depth is lent to it by means of an upstage area beyond the second frame, sometimes covered by scrim variously lighted from before or behind.
Performances are all excellent, especially Jenny Seagrove’s as Isobel. Hard to play such a self-less, seemingly low-key person who nevertheless has and recognizes her own feelings while sometimes admitting that she herself doesn’t know what they are and wishing for a little peace, a little space for bereavement. She never gets it, unless perhaps she does at the end. The most memorable scene — not in the next-to-last, in which Isobel is killed, effective and shocking though that is, but Scene v, the first scene of Act II, set in the new, expanded offices in the West End taken as a result of the corporate expansion, in which Isobel, dead tired after a disastrous day in which Katherine has nearly stabbed one of their important clients in a fit of drunken outrage, is forced by Irwin to have it out with him. It is a finely written scene in which the lines flow like water and the feelings become evermore patent and deep and dangerous, and true all the while. The two actors are equal to the challenge of playing this harder-than-hard truth-telling sequence. I will remember it a long time, alongside a similar scene in Act II of Skylight. This is what I come to London to see. So far, in this case and in others before it, I have not been disappointed.
(“We [Wallace Shawn and Hare] both try to show the strange, distorted route ideas take as they drizzle through the porous stone of personality and self-interest. No one else seems even to recognize the territory, let alone occupy it.” — Hare, Acting Up, page 35.)
** chariot. See “chariot-and-drop system” in Trapido, An International Dictionary of Theatre Language, page 145.