Infectious enthusiasms

Hard times on stage—and off it

Mark Lawson

Several modern theatres—the Globe in London, the Rose in Surrey, and the Swan in Stratford-on-Avon—recreate auditoria from Shakespeare’s time.

However, a level of Elizabethan and Jacobean authenticity on which few had reckoned was that spring 2020 would see British theatres closed to restrain the spread of a plague, as last happened in 1608. Then, the state shut down the playhouses; now Boris Johnson’s government advised theatregoers to stay away, leaving producers little choice but to suspend performances. Health comes first, but it is regrettable that the medical crisis has reduced the run of one of the most powerful theatrical experiences since that last stage-closing contagion 412 years ago.

On Blueberry Hill, which reached London’s Trafalgar Studios via Dublin and New York, is by Sebastian Barry, an Irish writer who is an occasional dramatist but has a larger reputation as a novelist (The Secret Scripture, Days Without End).

His latest play entwines soliloquies from Christy, a lean, sweary plain-speaker, and PJ, a plump, poetic former trainee Catholic priest. They first speak from the bunks of what is clearly a prison bed, but it is not until near the end of the 100 minutes that they share the same light or interact. Irish theatrical memory monologues have to fight to drown out the powerful echo of Samuel Beckett’s mesmerising solos such as Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days. But Barry holds his own line by eschewing Beckettian timeless and placeless absurdism for a precise Irish topography and history closer to James Joyce’s streams of detail.

Christy remembers that one of his sons “wasn’t like other boys in Monkstown Farm. He didn’t want to go see Finn Harps playing Bray Wanderers at the football.” PJ recalls that his mother had “this funny phrase she used, that something or other was as black as a giraffe’s tongue. I never heard another person say it, and I don’t even know if a giraffe’s tongue is black”.

From the moment the same name, “Pea-dar”, turns up, apparently casually, in consecutive sections from the men, we are desperate to know how they ended up as cellmates. It would be unfair to Barry’s dense and suspenseful concealment and revelation to say more than that the devastating explanation involves love, sex, death and Ireland’s deep and recent histories. Themes of lengthy revenges and epiphanic redemption allow the play to be taken as a metaphor for Irish enmities and fragile peace. However, in Jim Culleton’s production, it is, above all, an advertisement for theatre’s advantages over other fiction. Barry, as a fine novelist, is ideally placed to understand the differences between storytelling on page and stage, and luxuriates in them.

Niall Buggy’s Christy and David Ganly’s PJ acknowledge and engage with our reactions. The text’s numerous Roman Catholic references do not include the confessional box, but the theatre in effect becomes one as we listen in grave silence to lives gone wrong. No penitent, though, can ever have admitted their sins with the vocal range and nuance—from screaming rage to stunned silence beyond speech—that Buggy and Ganly bring to a play that demands almost telepathic collaboration while paradoxically behaving for most of the length as if alone on stage. With the stage run truncated, the BBC or Channel 4, must surely, as public service, record this astonishing show.

Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, just interrupted at the Duke of York’s, premiered in 1941, when a farce about a séance either distracted or consoled Londoners contemplating potential death from aerial bombing. Coward, who disliked theories that his light comedies were more serious than they seemed, insisted that the play succeeded because it took audience’s minds off the Second World War, and the latest revival could have had a similar effect in a differently apprehensive capital. But the best productions (including this one by Richard Eyre) bring out something deeper and darker about grief and hauntings, which we may guess to have drawn on Coward’s own experience of loss, and the singeing of new love by old flames.

The dramatist may also have been channelling guilt about recycling people into characters. Widowed novelist Charles Condomine, working on a book about a spiritualist, invites to dinner, for research purposes, Madame Arcati, a famous London medium who has retired to his English village.

Sexual politics are primitive—Charles ends up being spectre-pecked by his ex-wife, Elvira—but Eyre makes the supernatural moments nicely spooky, including an anachronistic yet enjoyable nod to The Exorcist. Blithe Spirit’s durability comes from offering a rare major role for older actresses. Angela Lansbury played it in the West End at 89, and a film version has just opened with the 85-year-old Judi Dench. Relatively a kid, at 61, Jennifer Saunders makes Arcati a hyperactive, tetchy eccentric, prone to belching and frantically fanning blouse or skirt to cool areas of sudden body heat. Her sheep-herding delivery and spread-legged stance, standing or seated, feel influenced by the late TV dog-whisperer, Barbara Woodhouse. A sign of these strange times was that the audience tangibly tensed during the elaborate rounds of hand-shaking common in mid-20th-century plays about the posh, Britons having been advised to knock elbows or bump shoes as a healthier greeting.

For one theatrical casualty of Covid-19, the fate was ironic. In The Upstart Crow (Gielgud Theatre), the risk of playgoing being banned, by pox or Puritans, is one of the trials faced by William Shakespeare in Ben Elton’s adaptation of his BBC sitcom. The father of English drama, played with charismatic exasperation by David Mitchell, also suffers creative drought, demanding daughters, and his life starting weirdly to mirror King Lear’s. The script is exuberant and rude (about new sensitivities around identity, among other things), but also learned about Shakespeare’s life and work, and Sean Foley’s physically and visually vivid production could lift spirits in a plague time. Elton should surely return this spin-off to its TV home.

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