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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The play’s the thing. Act One

There was a time when I was a regular theatre goer. For a number of reasons it has been quite some time since I have last had the pleasure of seeing a play in the West End or elsewhere. Despite the expense, I always bought programmes. Consequently I am now able to remind myself of the many performances I have seen over the decades.

I first started going to see plays as a schoolgirl. We were taken to see Macbeth at the Young Vic and The White Devil at the Old Vic. Three years after winning her second Oscar, Glenda Jackson played the lead, Vittoria Corombona, in the latter play. Four years later, there was a furore over the depiction of male rape in Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain. It was play I had intended to see but before I had a chance to go, it was banned and the director Michael Bogdanov put on trial for obscenity. He was later acquitted. What angered me most was the fact that the courts had not sought fit to prosecute the depiction of the graphic murder and sexual assault of Glenda Jackson’s character in the 17th century play: The White Devils. It seemed the self-proclaimed guardians of public morality were only outraged when the victims of violent sexual assault were male.

Long before Helen Mirren portrayed the Tudor Queen in the award-winning mini- series “Elizabeth”, Glenda Jackson gave what was deemed to be the definitive portrayal of the sovereign in the television series “Elizabeth R”. Unlike Mirren’s graphic version, the depiction of horrific torture and execution in the 1970s could only be hinted at. Nevertheless it could be as chilling in its way as any modern blood soaked gore-fest. In 1982 Glenda starred as Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress in Robert David MacDonald's “Summit Conference” at the Lyric Theatre. Georgina Hale played Mussolini's mistress Clara Petacci. Helen Mirren had played Clara in a BBC television play 7 years earlier. The director decided that Helen Mirren should play the real-life brunette Clara as a blonde, claiming, somewhat fatuously I thought, that a flaxen haired mistress of such a powerful man would be more credible than a woman with darker tresses.

In 1998 I saw Helen Mirren star with Alan Rickman in Anthony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre. I was more taken with her role as Moll Cutpurse in Middleton & Dekker's “The Roaring Girl”. This Jacobean play was performed at the Barbican theatre in period costume to great effect. Memorably, Helen Mirren had to perform a lively dance whilst singing raucously at the same time. I was also admired the caddish Luxton, played by Jonathon Hyde. The Roaring Girl was one of the few theatrical productions I saw at least half a dozen times or so during its run.

Vanessa Redgrave, along with Glenda Jackson, is one of those stars of the stage who I judge worth seeing, regardless of the quality of the production itself. For my birthday in 1991, the Partridge and I saw Vanessa as Isadora Duncan in “When she danced.” More recently I saw her in Hecuba. Only by reading through my collection of theatre programmes did I realise that I had seen the late great Paul Scofield play the title role in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman”, alongside Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins in 1996.
He died 4 years later. Ten years after I had seen her on stage in “Summit Conference” Glenda Jackson retired to take up a new career as a Member of Parliament. I have always regarded it as a special privilege to be able to see actors of the calibre of Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield and Maggie Smith perform live, even when I can only afford uncomfortable and rickety seats up in the gods. In a darkened auditorium it is quite easy to imagine that they are performing for me alone.

In recent decades there has been a tendency for famous American stars of television and film to chance their arm at performing on the London stage, hoping to take a successful production back to Broadway. Not all of them, unlike the Vanessa Redgraves and Glenda Jacksons of this world, are proficient at mastering the differing mediums of stage, film and television. Kim Cattrall gave a moving performance as Claire Harrison the quadriplegic lead character in Brain Clark’s “Whose life is it anyway.” Claire fights for the right to be allowed to die, something she is unable to undertake at her own hands being paralyzed. I saw the original London production with Tom Conti in the late 1970s. We chanced to pass by the actor Anthony Andrews and his wife on their way backstage just as we walked to our coach to take us back home. At the time I had a huge schoolgirl crush on Andrews and it made my night.

Glancing through the Cattrall programme I see it contains an appeal by Debbie Purdey the prominent activist campaigning for the right to be assisted in ending her own life, should her debilitating condition make it untenable, without the fear that those helping her would risk a lengthy jail sentence for simply carrying out her heartfelt last wishes.

Another Hollywood actor who impressed me on stage was Brendan Fraser in “Cat on a hot tin roof”. I still have the programme and have discovered it has currently attracted a bid of £2.99 on e-bay. It cost £3.00 which represents a loss of one penny to the seller. Still, perhaps if I were to likewise auction off my entire collection of programmes I might garner enough to pay for a seat in the stalls of a current production.

Now the curtain must fall on the subject albeit temporarily. It will rise again not just on stage plays but also on the operas I have enjoyed.

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