Monday 4 June 2018

Absolute Hell

National Theatre, Lyttelton
1st May, 2018, matinee

Naked and afraid in the face of her nothingness

Nicholas Dromgoole wrote a brilliant introduction for Rodney Ackland’s play in the text published to celebrate the National Theatre’s production in 1995. There, he charts the play’s difficult history from being booed off the stage and called an insult to the British (under the title of The Pink Room) in 1952, to the status of rediscovered masterpiece in 1988. In this introduction, he quotes Kenneth Tynan’s maxims of a typical West End play in the 1950s:

At no point may the plot or characters make more than superficial contact with reality. Characters earning less than 1000 a year should be restricted to small parts or exaggerated into types so patently farcical that no member of the audience could possibly identify with such esurience. Rhythm in dialogue is achieved by means of either vocatives… or qualifying clauses… and irony is confined to having an irate male character shout “I am perfectly calm!”

I had this in mind when, a week later, I saw Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger (touring the UK): cheap epigrams, laboured plots, and mostly middle class characters. There was one point when a character asked the stranger in the play ‘Who are your people?’ and I suddenly thought I was watching a prototype of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Other than that, as Dromgoole suggests, this 1930s play was mostly there to titillate, amuse and entertain. This is why I think that Ackland’s play is an under-appreciated 20th century classic. A private Soho club over the summer of 1945, frequented by fops, flops and philanderers, is the depiction of Blighty that Ackland gives us. It’s reigned over by Kate Fleetwood’s Christine, a Madame Ranevskaya of the West End, fuelled by the drink, customers and false bonhomie that her club, La Vie en Rose, trades in.

I have been wondering why Rufus Norris has programmed this revival when it was last staged at the NT in 1995 with Judi Dench as Christine. Why not find some other ‘lost’ play? Then again, why not stage it? The National is one of few producing houses that can facilitate such a large cast. The play’s portrayal of homosexuality and interest in complicated feelings and issues invites comparisons to Rattigan, Chekhov and O’Casey, next to which Ackland is still a less familiar name. I was thrilled that a new generation (myself included) could get an opportunity to see the play and experience a plethora of luscious characters that are frightened of their selves as much as they are of the war. It’s a shame, then, that Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production is rather unfocused and has left me with the impression that the play is not as good as I initially thought.

As conservative as this sounds, I think the problem starts with Lizzie Clachan’s set design. By and large, it does evoke the pink tinge of the Le Vie en Rose: classic furniture, large mirrors, frilly lampshades, wood panelling. Along with it being handsomely lit by Jon Clark, it suggests a sense of grandeur now faded and grubby; one bright lamp and a stain will be on show and the game given away. This is all great. But Hill-Gibbins and Clachan open up the design to show the backdrop of this era. In the script, from what I remember, we occasionally see the silhouette of a prostitute walking by the window or hear the tapping of typists in the Labour offices across the road. Here, we have to watch Rachel Dale’s Fifi lapping the set to walk across the front of the stage every five minutes like Grizabella, and a couple of typists stuck at desks at the back of the stage; how do they keep themselves busy for three hours? There’s something else bugging me. I think every show I’ve seen in the Lyttelton since Norris took over has had a set which partly reveals the back and side walls of the stage. I guess that this decision to achieve a stripped back aesthetic comes from a desire to not be so fastidious in creating the sorts of places that are usually put on the Lyttleton stage, whether they’re drawing rooms or country houses or bars. But here, whatever the intended effect of the uneven floors and large space at the back of the stage, the club and its characters became dislocated and therefore I sometimes questioned whether I believed them.

Thankfully, the cast relish these characters, hugely investing in them vitality, passion, hope and fear. To name but a few, Danny Webb brings out the precision of Siegfried as well as a fondness for Elizabeth Collier, stylishly played by Sinéad Matthews, a blonde bombshell lost in the era and later grief-struck; Jenny Galloway has a lot of fun with the bewigged, lisping literary critic R B Monody; Jonathan Slinger believably conveys the abject nastiness of producer Maurice Hussey. It’s rare to see a large cast of characters each with their own potential for detail and depth. Charles Edwards is perfect as the desperate writer Hugh Marriner. I’m not sure if it’s how Ackland has written his lines or Edwards’ compelling performance, but he seems less a character in a play and more completely lost in the character. One instance of spontaneity came when Webb hadn’t quite successfully lit Edwards’ cigarette and the following momentary exchange spoke volumes for Edwards’ performance. But of all these performative characters Kate Fleetwood shines above. Red dress, dark eyes, big hair, and an enormous amount of war paint, her Christine reaches the highest of highs followed by great lows. The cast and Hill-Gibbons do credit to this ensemble of characters.

As the ceiling tiles begin to fall and most of the characters have been undone, I started to wonder how formally old-fashioned, if very well-crafted, the play is. But for all that, I’ve a huge fondness for it, not least for Ackland’s belief in his characters and for the amount of poetry he’s got out of drinking. There are lines such as “When you’re in a crowd of people and all drinking and shouting and nobody listening all at once, you’re as it were drowned in a wave of love and understanding, and for a split second you find your true identity”. But where the air should feel thick with intoxication, it feels somewhat dissipated.

Absolute Hell is playing at the National Theatre until 16th June 2018.
Kate Fleetwood in Absolute Hell. Credit: Johan Persson

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