Grande dame and grand old man

Stockard Channing is now lighting up the London landscape that was shaped by the late Sir Peter Hall

Theatre
Stockard Channing in “Apologia”: Still full of fire (©Marc Brenner)

I would go to see pretty much anything with Stockard Channing in it, ever since she stole my rebellious teenage heart as Rizzo, the sarky disrupter of 1950s High School mores in Grease — and has long kept me wound into The West Wing’s web as Abby Bartlett, colluding and carping with her Bill Clinton-ish other half.

It must be the slow season in Hollywood, because Channing has fetched up at Trafalgar Studios, starring in a play by an emerging talent, Greek-born Alexi Kaye Campbell. He recently gave us Sunset at the Villa Thalia — a slow-moving, but thoughtful play about Greece and the legacy of the Generals’ dictatorship.

In Apologia, which runs until November 18, Channing at 73 is still full of fire as Kristin, a self-righteous matriarch and revered art critic, who has just published a memoir failing to mention either of her grown-up sons. The ensuing birthday reunion in her country kitchen — artfully strewn with 1970s jazz posters, hanging baskets of spidery plants and ecological washing powder, is therefore uncosy from the get-go. Channing adroitly inhabits the role of the kind of progressive American who obsessively distances herself from her countrymen. Greeted by her prospective daughter-in-law from Minnesota (Downton’s Laura Carmichael) as a fellow national, she shoots back, “By birth, not by choice.”

Failed progressive politics run bitterly through Kristin’s crabby veins. But cracking delivery gives us mischief along the way. The play premiered in 2009, the glad confident morning for liberals a year after Barack Obama’s first White House victory. “See how that turns out in the long run,” is the tart riposte. The play was written before the surge of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, which rather undermines the premise that heady political passions of the Left have died out. It might well have merited a re-writing to that end.

The shadow of Donald Trump, vivid sum of Kristin’s nightmares, adds a layer of dramatic irony, but can’t quite atone for the awkward way political events have of eating up what seemed like a good plot at the time. Nonetheless, Kaye Campbell is a talent to watch, with an Ayckbourn-ish appetite for dreadful domestic moments, here hinting at darker dissonances.

Joseph Millson plays both the aggrieved sons, one seeking solace in commercial success, the other a self-harming wreck. A foxy Freema Agyeman has a cracking outing as the more uppity of the two girlfriends, Claire, outraging Kristin with the price of her frocks and describing her acting as a “continuing TV domestic drama”. “You mean a soap opera,” concludes Kristin, banging another nail into the conversational coffin.

Putting the politics aside (as if Kristin would let us), I suspect many parents on the end of blame from their offspring about something or other they should have done more or less of will warm to her insistence that a life of failed beliefs is not necessarily a life without value. “It’s an apologia, not an apology,” says our termagant heroine of her chequered life.” Raise a glass of Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon to that.

A towering figure who stuck to the view that apologies are for wimps was Sir Peter Hall, founder of the RSC, director of the National Theatre, and titan of practically everything in modern British stagecraft. His death has marked a rare moment in the churn of cultural life — one in which everyone agrees that a loss marks the end of a creative period. Hall would have liked it that way, regarding theatre and the role of those who lead it as being as important to a nation’s psyche and self-image as any other leadership. It stemmed from a mixture of “talent and a loud mouth”, as he later reviewed his work. But he was also one of the most instinctive and gifted risk-takers in theatre across the second half of the 20th century.

It’s hard to imagine, when almost every performance of a classic work is shoe-horned into having some contemporary relevance, how visionary, back in 1959, Hall’s History Plays were at the RSC from 1959, forging it into an ensemble company. He was then just 29. He treated stories of greatness and fatal flaws with an immediacy that suggested parallels. while remaining true to the power and rhythm of Shakespearean verse — albeit to the point where Vanessa Redgrave complained that he wasn’t as interested in watching her in rehearsal as following the playscript, listening for a rogue stress.

From the first London staging of Waiting for Godot to the censor’s outrage at Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Homecoming, Hall pushed barriers of taste. Crucially, he was nearly always right in choosing worthwhile works for his crusades.

Public subsidy of the arts soon found its most elegant champion. “If you mean that I am in the theatre not to make money, not necessarily to entertain, but because I think theatre fulfils a social function needful to society, then yes, I am committed,” Hall growled.

The National Theatre was, of course, over budget, late and derided as grandiose. Although today it feels a bit like a temple of late-20th-century aspiration and tastes (all that brown and purple), Hall loved the building itself, a fondness for brutalism many of his staff and casts never quite came to share. His weakness was an autocratic streak — the rows over staging Brecht with the equally stubborn Bill Gaskill were legendary.

In public life, a tin ear for the limits of his own argument about subsidy led him to politicise the National Theatre in a direction which at time seemed more like revenge on the government than speaking truth to power. But he was the outstanding dramatic mentor and director of his time — a half-century of seminal work — because he understood the interplay of past and present on stage and screen and the need to weave new magic in with the old. It’s wrong to say he will be missed. Across the stroppy, energetic, experimental landscape of British theatre, he’s still very much there.