A critical look at new productions on the boards in London by Sheridan Morley.
The Designated Mourner
More of an event than a drama, The Designated Mourner plays only 20 already-sold-out performances at the National's Cottesloe before its star, Mike Nichols, has to return to Hollywood to film Primary Colors. Not that he's the only celebrity involved here: His co-stars are Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser; his author is Wallace Shawn of My Dinner with Andre; and his director is another star playwright, David Hare.
What they have gathered to give us is distinctly curious: a triple monologue running an unbroken three hours in which the three players sit at a long table and talk not to each other but straight out front to us. Some of Nichols's speeches are indeed so long that he appears to be reading them off some sort of table-top autocue. The story, such as it is, starts off faintly autobiographical. The Nichols character is the son-in-law of a famous American author, just as Wally Shawn is the son of the great New Yorker editor William.
But here the parallels start to recede. There seems to have been some sort of artistic holocaust, in which those left alive are only the few who can no longer recall anything about John Donne. Nichols has a chilly wife and a father-in-law to remind him of his own inadequacies and past failures, but soon his personal story fades into an apocalyptic account of how the anti-cultural barbarians are not only at the gates but inside all of us. In his London stage debut Nichols is cheerful, chubby, oddly bland for so harsh a fable. The other two are content making the odd interruption, like guests on a singularly poorly directed television chat show.
The Prince's Play
It's not often we get to see pure melodrama these days, and when we do, the script is generally so mauled about or camped up that it is difficult to work out the appeal of the genre even for our television and paperback-starved grandparents. All credit, therefore, to Richard Eyre at the National and his verse translator Tony Harrison for giving us a rare glimpse of Victor Hugo's Le Roi S'Amuse. Outside the Comedie Francaise, this is probably better known as Rigoletto, and we have had some stunning updates of that recently, not least from Jonathan Miller in a long-running revival at the Coliseum.
But what Harrison now calls The Prince's Play still has a lot going for it, even without the Verdi score. It was banned after its original first night in 1832 and has even been given credit for bringing down the Bourbon dynasty a few years later: for it tells of a lascivious and corrupt court (how unlike the home life of our own dear royals) in which the King rapes the teen-age daughter of a vaudevillian only then to sacrifice her own life. This, of course, leads to the body in the sack and the father's fateful discovery that it is his beloved child and not the evil monarch who has been so summarily dispatched. Quite which monarch we are dealing with here is left suitably vague by Eyre's imprecisely late-Victorian staging. Could this be Edward VII in waiting; could he even have been Jack the Ripper as some conspiracy theorists still believe?
No matter the driving force here is Ken Stott as the Rigoletto jester, now transformed into an end-of-the-pier comic. After years as an intriguing character actor, Stott makes a breath-taking breakthrough to stardom, one which eclipses all others onstage. His alone is the voice of republican conscience, and his determination to bring down the monarchy that has brought down his family is undoubtedly what got the play banned in the first place and Hugo exiled by Louis Napoleon to the Channel Islands a few years later. The Prince's Play is in the best sense subversive, and by the time we get to the storm scene with rain pelting the stage in darkest night, what we really have here is the French King Lear in all its obsessive, justice-seeking magnificence.
At the Almeida, Jonathan Kent's Tartuffe is a wonderfully vital and witty staging of the Richard Wilbur translation, played at such a breath-taking pace that for much of the evening we could almost be watching a Feydeau farce rather than its seventeenth-century antecedent.
Tom Hollander is a splendidly sinister, manic Tartuffe, the kind of corrupt holy leader who would nowadays, you feel, be leading massed bands of his admirers to some terrible group suicide in the wilds. Ian McDiarmid is Orgon, alternately overbearing and pathetic as his family starts to desert him on account of his religious obsession with the shyster evangelist, and the rest of an immensely powerful cast give us what we have now come to expect of the Almeida: sharp, stylish, brisk rediscoveries of classics that the National and the RSC are still doing ponderously at about twice the playing time.
Rob Howell's set, a library curving off out of sight, makes the minuscule stage look about twice its normal size, and there is an intriguing hint, but no more, that Tartuffe's otherwise inexplicable hold over Orgon may be as much sexual as sacred.
"God made the world in seven days; now you can't even get a decent pair of trousers made in three months": No, not Coward or Rattigan but their clinically depressed contemporary Samuel Beckett, whose Endgame is now at the Donmar Warehouse in a very strong new production by Katie Mitchell, with Alun Armstrong as the crippled tyrant Hamm and Stephen Dillane as his less-than-faithful servant Clov.
After years of unqualified and sometimes undeserved adulation, I get the impression that my critical colleagues are gradually turning against Beckett, and this production comes as a useful reminder of precisely why he mattered. He was the doom-laden poet of the apocalypse, not strong on plot it is true, but able to deliver terrible warnings about the Armageddon to come, one of which the two principal characters here appears to be the sole survivors. Unless, that is, you count Hamm's legless parents, confined to upstage dustbins and the occasional, cynical complaint about their lot.
More than 40 years on, Endgame retains the bitter post-nuclear horror of Eliot's The Hollow Men, and Beckett himself talked of it as "a chess game lost from the start." But there is still a bleak and terrible humor here, if only in the idea of the four people left on earth bitching at each other because they appear to have been forgotten by some malevolent deity. Survival, Endgame tells us, could be a lot worse than annihilation. But this production rightly also dwells on the blackest of Beckett's jokes: "Do you believe in a life to come?" "Mine has always been just that." As for the rest, it's less of a chess challenge than a weary stalemate.