Once more - with feeling?
The 1950s has become the go-to era in which British directors situate classic plays. Mrs Affleck by Samuel Adamson, just opened at the National Theatre, reimagines Ibsen's Little Eyolf on the Kent coast in 1955. Ibsen's unhappy husband and wife, rancorous in their loneliness, plus their disabled little boy and uncomfortably clingy sister-in-law, occupy a dank town by the sea, and are preoccupied by space age dreams, wartime phantoms, Lucky Jim and kitchen appliances.
As I wrote in an earlier post, British theatre is having a fifties moment. But what exactly is it about this decade? And why is it considered hospitable to plays from other times and places? So many classic works involve protagonists who kick against the rules, and the period seems to represent, in Britain at least, a time which offers a set of immutable social codes. Kathryn Hunter, for example, directing a new Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company, feels the 1950s is the most recent period to which the play could be updated; the last stand of public racism in Britain.
Let's define the fifties as a 'long decade', an austere period between the weary aftermath of World War Two and what Philip Larkin gloomily posited as the beginning of sex in 1963. Here Matthew Bourne's unloved prince in Swan Lake drags his feet through royal duties but dreams of something wild, while the RSC's latest Richard III slipped happily into a world of East End gangsters with sharp suits, sharper knives, scruples blunt to the point of oblivion.
Marriages might seem unhappy but inescapable - Kate Winslet locked away in Revolutionary Road stands for a miserable phalanx of trapped wives, stifled by domesticity but unable to identify an alternative. At the National, Adamson's Rita Affleck too laments this tightly tailored persona: 'I'm not just "Olly's mother". Mummy... school gates and lunches and 'pilots of the future' and those doctors... those waiting rooms with the women looking at me... always bad Mrs Affleck or good Mrs Affleck but never a person... and worst of all, not a person to you.' I'm sure the true historical picture about gender and marriage is far more complex than this suggests; even so, it seems to represent the last moment at which a spectator can't merely roll their eyes at a despondent stage wife and suggest they find a job, or jump in the Hillman Imp and head for new towns, new possibilities.
Some early reviews of Mrs Affleck cavil at the setting. They suggest that strange things may take place by fjords, but that they simply don't happen in England, thank you very much (in fact, a macabre strand of the English imagination involves a shady dance between the occult and the mundane by the bleak bleak shore: take a look at All the devils are here, David Seabrook's sly cultural tour of the Kent coast). They equally suggest that the new period does nothing to illuminate Ibsen's original. True, the journey doesn't transform the source play, but it does sharpen details for us. Alfred Allmers, hapless intellectual, has often seemed a passive character (Ibsen's pacts between strong, unfulfilled women and weak men can still seem ahead of their time). In the wake of the war and especially Hiroshima, this Alfred is not a wuss but a pacificist, which gives point to his attempt to define and live some kind of good life. Rita's ferocious ennui, and the silences which everyone finds easier to wrap about them, also strain in this period, as if they sense free speech is but a few years away.
Many of the subjects the Afflecks find difficult to discuss - like Ibsen's Allmers before them - would be touchy in every era, including our supposedly frank-speaking own time. Hopelessness and lacerating need, the unacceptable desires and hatreds that cluster in family life, are never easy to address. Marianne Elliott's fine production of Mrs Affleck clears away the period kitchen set for the final act, and designer Bunny Christie creates a grey, misty space in which the characters wander, lost, bound less by their period and more by their unhappy psyche.
If we ask classic plays to present our past to us, to serve as grandparents to our imaginations, than it is hardly surprising that we situate them a generation or two back. From there, they can reach to us over a social divide that we recognise but which also contains the prospect of its own dissolution. And we realise, perhaps, that our own era, with its unwritten codes and hypocrisies, may come to fulfil a similar purpose in the future.
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