Like his long-time director Richard Eyre, the most prolific and faithful of National Theatre dramatists this last decade or so is leaving the South Bank on a considerable high: David Hare's new Amy's View is not only another triumph of his national temperature-taking, but also that still less fashionable form of drama, the backstage play.
Once upon a time, every self-respecting dramatist felt his or her portfolios incomplete without at least one look through a dressing-room glass darkly. But with the recent fear and loathing of "luvviedom" has come the belief that plays written, however well, in greasepaint are unlikely to appeal to a non-Equity audience. So what Hare has cunningly done is to save the ritual dressing-room confrontation until the very end of a touching, chilling, hugely observant contemporary social drama, most of which takes place in an equally unfashionable and long-lost setting, a country house in the Thames Valley.
It is more than a little courageous of Hare to set his stirring defense of the live drama within the framework of what might at first sight seem a set vacated 40 years ago by the likes of Enid Bagnold and Robert Bolt, and left derelict ever since; braver still, though I appear to be alone in noticing this, to open Amy's View exactly as Coward opened his 1925 Hay Fever, with a celebrated if now outdated actress suddenly confronted with the arrival in her living room of an unwelcome weekend guest in the shape of her daughter's apparently unsuitable boyfriend. The only difference, 70 years later, is that we are now in
Pangbourne, whereas Coward set his play a few miles downstream at Marlow.
But having paid this ritual and, I trust, conscious obeisance to the old backstage dramas, Hare moves his swiftly forward; his play is about the victims of the Lloyds Insurance crash, the supremacy of cinema over theatre for the young, and above all else Amy's view, which is essentially that love will conquer all, just so long as everyone is very nice to everyone else.
Only, of course, they are not: Around Amy (a suitably wide-eyed if sometimes inaudible Samantha Bond) are gathered her mother (Judi Dench as the predatory old actress unable to believe in a world no longer run in her image); a drunken neighbor who turns out to be the Lloyds villain (Ronald Pickup); and a pushy young TV director (Eoin McCarthy), this last a somewhat thankless ninepin role, though not so much of an afterthought as that of the young actor (Christopher Staines) who has to come out of nowhere to sustain, with remarkably little help, the final scenes. There is also an old and later paralyzed grandmother, wonderfully played, in a welcome return to the stage, by Joyce Redman.
In the end this is not as powerful a Hare piece as Skylight or indeed Racing Demon or Plenty, largely because across the 16 years of the play's development the author himself seems to get a little confused about his own priorities of national and personal concern: the declining respect awarded to those actors who stay away from films and television; the fact that some very nice if somewhat careless people got inadvertently scorched by Lloyds; the way that a trendy, Tarantinoesque film director specializing in exploding skulls will always play to better houses than the best dramatists. All of that is at the heart of Amy's View, but her view, too, is clouded; her sudden last-act demise seems the only way Hare could get us to careat least in retrospectabout her somewhat dim vision, and so when the final confrontation comes between her still self-absorbed mother and the young director who has married and then betrayed her, we know from the very start that the stage lady will win out over the film guy because that is what this play has been about from the start.
It is only at the very last that we get the glimmering of a new thought: that in the end, an actress is always alone because no writer, no director, no relative can go out there with her to the only place it really matters and where she most wants to be. Judi Dench conveys, as only she can, a woman who finds more life in theatre than in life, and Amy's View is at the last reflected in a dressing-room mirror. But that mirror is not in fact Amy's, and thus does a marvelous play lose some of its ultimate purpose and direction. For all that, hasten along: Eyre's staging of the last 60 seconds alone is one of the most breath-taking representations of the trick of theatre I have ever seen.
On the Cottesloe stage of the National, Patrick Marber's second play Closer not only lives up to the promise of his Dealer's Choice but is an even sharper and more tense account of relationships in total moral and sexual breakdown. This is a Private Lives for the late nineties, a story of four people who can live neither together nor apart, but whose electric attraction to each other finally burns all of them out in a shock-ending that has been very carefully prepared if only we could have seen it coming. Like Coward, Marber has a remarkable talent for making us fall in love with appalling people, and here their fatal attraction is what drives the play across the borders of comedy and tragedy.
Not since David Hare's Skylight has there been a British play about sexual politics with such raw energy and throat-catching reality, and in Marber's own production the quartet of mismatched lovers are equally breath-takingly played by Sally Dexter, Ciaran Hinds, Liza Walker and Clive Owen. Like Skylight, Closer will also have a long West End and Broadway life when it leaves the South Bank.
-- By Sheridan Morley