Thursday 1 June 2017

The Graduate

Curve, Leicester
30th May, 2017*

*Please note that this was a preview performance

Philistine that I am, I’ve never seen Mike Nichols’ film of The Graduate (itself based on Charles Webb’s novel). Literally all I knew about it was Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ and that famous shot of Dustin Hoffman artfully framed by Anne Bancroft’s legs. So I came to Terry Johnson’s adaptation with fresh eyes, unclouded by comparison and unjaded by the now well-worn coming-of-age story. This had both its benefits and its detractions – I was amused by the unfolding plot, yet found Johnson’s contemporary skewering of 1960’s suburban ennui highlighted themes which left me slightly uncomfortable.

Lucy Bailey’s direction is stylish and assured, the sex scenes were handled particularly well, being neither overly gratuitous nor coldly detached she struck a perfect balance, and her use of video projection to convey Benjamin’s sense of suffocation and desire is very effective. Mike Britton’s design complements the play in the use of wood panelling and fluttery gauze curtains to depict early 1960’s suburbia; a pre-revolutionary world of faux-swish beige. In fact, the video, set and Mic Pool’s soundtrack of folksy muzak unite in reminiscence of Nichols’ influential cinematic adaptation while also being a solid theatrical experience.

The play itself is one of thematic binaries – age vs youth, experience vs naivety, subservience vs rebellion – and is very much a character driven piece. I found my sympathies fluctuating between mother and daughter. The legendary Mrs Robinson, played with equal measures of bravado and fragility by Catherine McCormack, is a shell of a woman, ravaged by years of alcoholism and a loveless marriage, who seeks a lost vitality through her affair with the young Benjamin Braddock. Despite the whiff of exploitation surrounding the affair, Mrs Robinson is a complex and deeply sad character who is a victim of circumstance, tied by the societal mores that bound women in the pre-enlightenment, post-war years. By contrast, her daughter Elaine (Emma Curtis) stifles her sense of self and liberty through a naïve façade of optimism. Mrs Robinson’s twisted sense of protectiveness towards Elaine, filtered through emotions ranging from jealousy to resentment, creates an intriguing maternal relationship at the centre of the play.

However, while interesting and rather captivating, I found it much more difficult to sympathise with our protagonist. Jack Monaghan does a fine job of conveying Benjamin’s erratic nature; he is, at times, full of puppyish enthusiasm and gawky awkwardness, interchanging with an embodiment of the increasing dissatisfaction of the disenfranchised youth. When he describes his feelings towards the ‘grotesque’ people around him, I was reminded of the pin-up of teenage nihilism, Holden Caulfield, and his obsession with ‘phonies’. We meet Benjamin at his most cynical, something is missing from his life, but, as we find, Mrs Robinson can’t give him what he craves. And whilst Elaine administers a generous dose of optimism to counteract his cruel introspective nihilism, I couldn’t bring myself to root for them as a couple.

Elaine’s ultimate act of rebellion – ditching her fiancé at the altar to run away with Benjamin – is only a subversive ‘up yours’ to the confines of convention on the surface. If we look deeper it is apparent that throwing herself into the arms of the equally controlling Benjamin is a bad move. Benjamin is, by all intents and purposes, a stalker. He uses Elaine (just as Mrs Robinson used him) as a means of placating his own conflicted sense of identity, believing he now wants a life of innocent domesticity (in contrast to the animalistic sexuality of his affair with Mrs Robinson) and that Elaine is the only means of achieving it. The truth is, he doesn’t know what he wants, and his actions throughout the play are merely an exercise in selfishness and entitlement – do what you want and don’t think of the consequences.

As a feminist, it is thus difficult to locate a credible message amongst all the thematic angst in The Graduate. The final Cheerios scene is bittersweet. I can’t really call it a happy ending – more a feeling of temporary joy, a static and childlike tableau of adult domesticity. I can’t see a content future for Benjamin and Elaine – are they not destined to succumb to boredom, drink, and illicit affairs as Mrs Robinson did? (As Benjamin already has done?). But my biggest problem with the play is this: Benjamin never feels truly oppressed, despite his whinging he remains an entitled intellectual man in the position to forge his own path. On the other hand, the women – even Mrs Braddock (Rebecca Charles) who is hysteric at the thought of causing her son’s misdemeanours – feel very much under the thumb of societal expectations and are at the mercy of the whims of the men around them. Elaine is very much stuck between a rock and a hard place – either obeying society’s demands that she marries a doctor and has lots of children, or succumbing to Benjamin’s pressures – could she not have chosen neither? Therefore, the greatest binary of them all is the age old Men vs Women, and The Graduate is an interesting addition to such debates and provides much food for thought.

As a dark satire, Johnson does a commendable job of retaining a sense of place while encompassing universal themes that still resonate with today’s youth. Bailey’s direction is stylishly droll while maintaining intellectual substance, and she draws lovingly human performances from her cast – the three leads in particular come across as well rounded characters, devoid of the caricature that could result from adapting such a ubiquitous story. Johnson’s play is a fine introduction to Charles Webb’s story, and has left me intrigued and somewhat bewildered. I’ll now be looking out for the film with a sharp eye and keen mind.

The Graduate plays at Curve, Leicester until 10th June.

Jack Monaghan as Benjamin Braddock and Catherine McCormack as Mrs Robinson. Photography by Manuel Harlan

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