Though you’d never know it from the freezing weather, the London theatre is embarking upon its spring season. I haven’t yet seen the most promising flower,<em> The Book of Mormon</em>, because I didn’t go to the press night, and the lead actor got laryngitis the night I was scheduled, so the management politely asked me to come another time, rather than see the understudy’s first public performance.
But I have seen two of the other most prominent spring theatrical buds, and I don’t think they fulfil their promise. There’s some sort of lesson in the partial failure to blossom of John Logan’s <em>Peter and Alice</em> and Bruce Norris’s <em>The Low Road</em>, but damned if I know what it is. Peter and Alice is the second play in the Michael Grandage Company season at the Noel Coward Theatre. (The first was the almost successful <em>Privates on Parade</em> by Peter Nichols, with a spectacular performance by Simon Russell Beale.)
Michael Llewellyn Davies aged 17
John Logan has excellent form: I loved <em>Red</em>, his play about the turbulent talent of the painter Mark Rothko, in which the playwright (it seemed to me) got right under the skin of the artist. <em>Red</em> and <em>Peter and Alice</em> have in common that they deal with historical individuals, real people with real biographies. They are people the audience can know something about off-stage (unlike Hamlet, for example, who, <em>pace</em> Freud, has no existence except a fictional one). Logan, I felt, succeeded in portraying Rothko’s visionary, mystical quality in a manner that was consonant with what I already knew about the painter.
Perhaps my trouble was that I knew too much about the “Peter” of the play. There’s a slight fiddle going on here, of course, because the “Alice” (played magnificently as you’d expect by Judi Dench) really <em>was</em> Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for <em>Alice’s Adventures Underground</em> (later <em>Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland</em>). Peter Llewellyn Davies, on the other hand, contributed chiefly his first name to Peter Pan, as the character in J.M. Barrie’s play was based on the youngest of the five Llewellyn Davies boys, Michael.
The Llewellyn Davies family figured in my 1979 life of the philosopher, <em>G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles</em>, because two of the brothers, Crompton and Theodore, sons of the Vicar of Kirkby Lonsdale, were Apostles, handsome, clever fellows who were close friends of Moore (and of Bertrand Russell). To quote myself (n., p. 56): “A brother of Crompton’s and Theodore’s had married the daughter of Du Maurier; J.M. Barrie was very attached to her, and when her husband died the elderly playwright adopted her children. This was of course after the university careers of Crompton and Theodore, but the family was not simply a provincial clergyman’s brood, as they seem always to have had strong ties to the world of letters.”
As we learned from Andrew Birkin’s thrilling 1978 docudrama of BBC TV, called “The Lost Boys,” the five male children of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies had hard lives following the death of their father (who takes the stage in Peter and Alice in a wheelchair, his face horribly disfigured by a leather prosthetic). Barrie was a demanding guardian, but though I’ve no doubt he had sexual feelings for the boys, I’m equally certain he never (in the words of Alice in the play) “interfered with” any of them physically. But he certainly interfered with their emotional development.
Incidentally, the dialogue is amazingly good, in flowing, idiomatic, British English – except for a single solecism. Alice three times refers to “Reverend Dodgson.” Even now, “Reverend” can only be used with the cleric’s forename or other title – “the Rev. Mr Dodgson” or “the Rev. Dr Dodgson” and in 1932, when Peter and Alice actually met at an event in a bookshop, this Americanism was actually out of order.
The (genuine, historic) meeting of the 80-year-old Alice and the 35-year-old Peter makes less good drama than you’d imagine for one crucial reason: it’s the wrong boy. Though Peter Davies was marked and marred by his childhood loss and Barrie’s dominance, it was his brother <a href=”http://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Llewelyn_Davies”>Michael </a>who bore the brunt of it, and drowned in what I think was a suicide pact with (I also think, his lover) Rupert Buxton, in the Thames, near Oxford in May, 1921.
So though Ben Whishaw is very fine as Peter, and though Dame Judi is incapable of anything but giving a great performance (and though the pair of them was one of the few things I liked about <em>Skyfall</em>), it doesn’t work. True, the slower first half is redeemed by a wonderful emotional acceleration in the second half, and Christopher Oram’s Pollock toy theatre sets are a delight; and it’s also true that, in the second half, Logan gets near to asking the real questions about whether Lewis Carroll and Barrie genuinely harmed Alice and Peter.
But Peter wasn’t the focus of Barrie’s lust or his meddling; Michael was, and Logan’s invention does not stretch to making up an attention-grabbing story for Peter. Peter and Alice is perilously near being Hamlet minus the Prince.
Bruce Norris’s new play marks another big occasion – the last production there by Dominic Cooke Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre. Norris’s <em>Clybourne Park</em>, another of Cooke’s stagings, is the only play to win the Big Four prizes – the Pulitzer, the Tony, the Olivier and the Evening Standard awards. Oddly, with its 50 characters (played be a cast of 20) <em>The Low Road</em> is also supposed to be the only costume-drama at the Royal Court during Cooke’s tenure (and therefore a higher than usual budget).
It’s a hybrid 18th century swashbuckler plus one nearly very funny contemporary scene – of a panel of financial experts at an international conference. But it’s also a picaresque tale in the manner of a Fielding novel, <em>Tom Jones</em> or <em>Joseph Andrews</em>. Narrated by “Adam Smith” (deliciously played by Bill Paterson, with a consistent and pure Scottish accent), it’s the story of a bastard child (whose father leaves a note signed “G. Washington of Virginia”) abandoned on the doorstep of a brothel, and brought up by the madam and her one-eyed black slave. The boy, now called “Jim Trumpett” (and played, a little hysterically, by Johnny Flynn) grows up to be the free-enterprise-gospelling pimp, who apparently puts the brothel onto a sound business footing.
There are a couple of cheats involved. The first is that the “benign invisible hand/enlightened self-interest” ideology spouted by young Jim, unfairly foisted upon Adam Smith, is really not the Enlightenment thinker’s free-market theory, but the extreme 20th century radical egoism theory of Ayn Rand – and I think Norris jolly well knows the difference. The second is that the anachronistic (and constant) use of expletives by Jim (everything is “f***ing,” “Jesus was an asshole”) soon loses its initial charm, though sometimes the anachronisms, such as the dissenting-sect woman quoting Marx in the 18th century, are funny. Even more distressing are the passages, clearly indicated in the script, where several people talk at once.
There is much that is clever in both the form and the substance of <em>The Low Road</em>, some of which seems to be a tirade against capitalism (or at least, the brand of it preached by the American NeoCons), but some of which also appears to be a slightly contrary satire on political correctness. However, despite a couple of neat <em>coups de theatre</em>, this seems to me an unfinished work, not yet fully thought out and developed – it bristles with loose ends – embezzlement that’s only clear in the script, not on the stage, a rapes that seems to take place only in retrospect, which results in a baby that seems to imply a cycle that we have reason to think has ended. Perhaps Mr Norris will tie these up before the end of the run, calm down the character of Jim a bit, and reduce the use of four-letter words to a genuinely shocking minim
Though I’m no economic determinist, you have to wonder whether the current economic climate is affecting new plays. Could it be that there is more pressure to deliver the text of a new commission, or less rehearsal time, or are budget cuts now bleeding?