The "Oh dear" Drama
This week has pointed up, for me and many of my colleagues, a category of critical judgement that all critics hate, the "oh dear" performance. You know exactly what I mean. It's what you say when someone asks you about a play, opera, ballet or concert for which you had high hopes and, usually, some special incentive to get a ticket - a director, actor, conductor, singer or dancer you rate highly, or even one who is greatly celebrated. You sit through the entire evening, because it's your critical duty, But when someone later asks you about the performance, your first response is to moan, not too softly either, "oh dear." I saw two such plays this week, both London premières (one a world first performance). The better of them is worth going to despite its flaws, the other is a genuine turkey; but both failures are the fault of the playwright.
"Be Near Me" is "a stage version by Ian McDiarmid from the novel by Andrew O'Hagan." This excellent novel was a contender for the 2006 man Booker Prize. Mr McDiarmid has adapted it with a wonderfully juicy part for himself, as Father David Anderton, an English Catholic priest in a tough Scottish town in Ayrshire, which suffers from a sort of overspill of Northern Irish rage and prejudice, so that working-class adolescent schoolchildren are not only thugs but bigots. McDiarmid is wonderful as the tolerant, witty, ex-Oxford undergraduate food and wine-loving priest, whose sense of irony is too developed for him really to be a believer, let alone a cleric.
The difficulty with the play (staged at the Donmar Warehouse sparely and elegantly by John Tiffany and designed sparsely by Peter McIntosh) is that we need an explanation for Father David's apparent superficiality and inability to take himself seriously. He gets involved in a paedophile scandal mostly because he refuses to engage with life, and the Church is for him a place of comfort that allows him to busy himself without thinking too deeply about his motives. McDiarmid's script makes only passing reference to the novel's great love affair at Oxford between the David and a Liverpool boy who died very young. Even without introducing another character, it would have been possible to write a scene at least clarifying this; but the ghost of this unwritten scene hovers over the drama, begging to be played. Oh dear; but still worth seeing for some first-rate performances.
Kevin Spacey is London's best American export - he has revitalised the Old Vic with some daring choices of plays - such as the recent trilogy of "The Norman Conquests," for which he reconfigured the auditorium in the round. And when he himself appears on its stage, the production is invariably a triumph. He's a great man, and ought to have an honorary knighthood conferred upon him immediately. But - oh dear - when he makes a mistake, it's a big one.
Press night for the world première of Joe Sutton's "Complicit" was postponed for nine days. The rumour was that the problem was that Richard Dreyfuss couldn't learn his lines; and last night, he was still wearing an earpiece and an obvious wire. But his memory was not the problem and, in fact, his performance as an American journalist in conflict with a Grand Jury and his own conscience about torture and the Iraq war, was as good as was possible. David Suchet, as his slimy lawyer, was even better. Only poor Elizabeth McGovern, as the wife who nags that family interests must trump principles, was not very good - but her lines make it impossible to have much sympathy for her. So how can three superb actors like this fail so resoundingly?
The answer? There are two other characters in the programme's cast list, "Interrogator 1/Court Official" and "Interrogator 2." Except for a brief walk-on by the Court Official, neither of these characters appears in the play at all, and the running time is nearly half an hour shorter than we expected. Joe Sutton is still trying to fix his mess, and has removed not only entire scenes, but even characters.
Oh dear, I don't think he can mend it. The play's point of view about the issues of America sanctioning and perhaps even practising torture, about the morality of torture, and about the importance of freedom of the press and, finally, betrayal, are not subtle but muddled. I'd be surprised if Mr Sutton can tell us what he thinks about these weighty matters; I am certain that none of his characters can give a coherent account of their views.
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