Both National Theatre Lyttelton, both directed by Max Stafford-Clarke and sharing the same troupe of National Theatre actors
Stafford-Clarke likes to pair two plays that have some kind of complementary relationship, as he did in the Out of Joint production of The Recruiting Officer and Their Country’s Good. The new De Angelis play is about Goldsmith’s futile effort to persuade Garrick to perform She Stoops; or, at least, that is the scaffolding on which the play is hung. Stafford-Clarke (hence S-C) is much more at home with the De Angelis play than with the Goldsmith. In the case of the De Angelis work he is directing personages who can pass for persons captured in their own natural life circumstances, whereas with the Goldsmith he has to contend with actual, high-profile dramatic characters which have a long history on the stage — a history of which he is pretty abysmally ignorant.
That ignorance comes out in his efforts to mount a viable production of She Stoops and, most particularly, in his approach to the character of Tony Lumpkin. This character, which made the career of John Quick, the creator of the role in the first, Covent Garden production in 1773 and enhanced the careers of successive generations of actors, is the life and soul of the play. He has to be played for the rollicking, fun-loving, restrictions-hating seeming ne’er-do-well that he is, even as Goldsmith has arranged for him to bring the play, notwithstanding his own naïve mistakes, to a happy conclusion. He has, in Owen Sharpe, an actor with the potential talent to be this life-saver from the start; but S-C makes him into a surly malcontent up to no good, a malicious, vindictive, bad-tempered, snippy oaf that nobody can like, and it is only Goldsmith’s brilliant planning and his endowment of the character with an unquenchable joie de vivre that brings Sharpe through as the savior of the night, despite S-C’s attempt to impose some sort of self-reflective complexity on a character who is blissfully free of any such modern ruminations. The pace of the play picks up, as it must, toward the end, but the first half lacks verve. S-C misses some nice opportunities in the exchanges between Tony and Constance Neville; and Monica Dolan has to work harder than she ought to have had to represent the viable distinction between the Hardcastle’s properly but not stiffly raised young daughter and the barmaid that the obtuse young Charles Marlow stupidly takes her for. That is, there is a certain ungainliness in Miss Hardcastle that is not in the character and that S-C should have seen and purged from the profile of the role.
Still, there were many good moments in this production, despite Ian Redford’s irritating broadcasting of his lines at high decibels and the intermittent inaudibility of the two young women (at least, they were thus from my perch in the second row of the Lyttelton dress circle; I am making a note to go for front-of-stalls seats there from now on). I especially enjoyed the horse-pond sequence, in which Mrs. Hardcastle comes on upstage and falls on all fours into the (fortunately, pretty shallow) pond. And I liked the specially written prologue (spoken by Jason Watkins as Dickory), all rhymed couplets, in which patrons were urged to turn off their cell phones and the wonderful dance at the end with all the characters and even a few selected audience members invited to join in. Much may be forgiven a director who ends his play in such a burst of happy, vital comedy.
The De Angelis play has a fine, Hogarthian, rough-and-tumble vitality to it too. For some reason it took me a long time to get into the spirit of it (I’m nursing a miserable cold picked up, probably, from sneezing passengers next to me in the American Airlines cattle car I flew over here on). But I did, eventually. De Angelis evidently did a load of research on Garrick and his contemporaries — actors and prominent historical personages such as Samuel Johnson (played by the irrepressibly booming Ian Redford). She got some things wrong (as in indicating that Garrick only did one new play each year, far from the truth) but many things right. At the thematic heart of the play is the question of vitality — a question because, as De Angelis construes the age, it is becoming more constricted, more correct, and more fearful of anything that may be perceived as low and unmannerly. She identifies the rise of sentiment, of “good feeling,” as the insidious force that threatens to undermine the vitality — of which the greatest sign is laughter — of the age. S-C, in his program essay, says some rather stupid things about what was happening in the eighteenth century as Garrick prospered, one of which is that no plays have survived from that age to grace our own. (Reasons and rebuttal of this foolish idea on some other occasion.) And the play ends with Garrick doing the heath scene from Lear — “Howl! Howl!” — and then being reminded of his own re-writing of the end of the play, in which the feather stirs, Cordelia lives, and is restored to life and happiness. And sure enough, Johnson is there to quote his own comments, in his edition of Shakespeare (or is it in the Preface?) to the effect that Shakespeare’s ending of the play is too terrible even to be read, let alone acted. And then the lights go down and down until all that’s left is a spotlight on Garrick’s face, whose expression is one of helpless resignation.
In his program note S-C faults Garrick for not having seen the greatness in She Stoops and for having chosen instead to do Richard Cumberland’s insipid, laughter-less play The Fashionable Lover, which De Angelis presents as having caused a riotous protest by the Drury Lane audience (I must check to see if this is so). It’s deplorable, S-C thinks, and an indictment of Garrick, that he didn’t have the insight to see he should have chosen the one play that has survived from Garrick’s time. (Has he ever heard of The School for Scandal or The Rivals?) De Angelis is pretty good at showing us the complexities surrounding Garrick’s choice of the Cumberland play instead, though she makes it hinge on an embarrassing letter from Susanna Cibber to Garrick, discovered by Hannah More, who blackmails Garrick into choosing the play full of rarefied sentiment over the offensively “low” parts of Goldsmith’s play. Did she make this up? I need to look into that too.
In any case, there is some fine, broad acting in A Laughing Matter, including some very good backstage and green room goings-on that capture a good bit of the way theatre, then and now, is a social rule-breaker, even an agency for transgressive behavior. The pervasive irony invoked by all of this is that the vitality of the theatre is messy but unquenchable, even as it strives, in Dr. Johnson’s stentorian words in the 1747 prologue, to “echo back the public voice,” in obedience to “the drama’s laws.”
How much of this Max Stafford-Clarke really understands remains unclear, but it has to be said that he brought this play to convincing Hogarthian life. It may be best, in cases like this, to persuade directors to spare us their vision of the play set down in a program note and settle for mounting the play — something that, by and large, they understand rather well.