New productions are often interesting, but it is sometimes tempting to go instead to old plays that have survived the test of time, particularly if they are not often staged. At the moment, there are five such major productions in London. The most recent is Tennessee Williams’s Spring Storm, written 73 years ago, and the oldest is Dion Boucicault’s comedy, London Assurance, first produced in 1841. In between are Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1920), Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard (1926) and George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession of 1893.
It is surprising how contemporary they seem. The language, particularly, feels modern, though perhaps no dramatist would these days name a character Lady Gay Spanker, the gloriously eccentric hunting aristocrat played by Fiona Shaw in London Assurance. All these productions are superbly acted, sumptuously produced and (apart from the O’Neill) are both funny and witty at times. All hold the audience’s attention and are playing to packed houses. Perhaps it is too much to expect them all to be great plays. However, all are in their different ways very good.
Boucicault is a name that even devoted theatregoers may not know, yet he was for almost 50 years the most important man of the theatre — playwright, actor, director, producer and innovator — on both sides of the Atlantic. London Assurance, his first play, was a smash hit in 1841, and one can imagine why, even with jaded hindsight. It is a lush romantic farce with plenty of funny lines and genteel slapstick, in which an ageing London exquisite ventures into the countryside to marry a rich young girl, only to be ensnared by a complicated plot and the preposterous Lady Gay Spanker. Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw extract the last scintilla of comedy from their roles, with obvious pleasure. But even they cannot make it much more than a delightfully slick bit of froth, if froth can be slick.
Froth is not a word associated with G. B. Shaw. His talent is usually weighed down by his didactic urges. But even though Mrs Warren’s Profession was written to instruct a censorious public that women were forced into prostitution not by depravity but by poverty, the play is remarkably free of the curse of Shaw. For once, he manages to transform his moral message into characters with surprisingly complex, shifting and convincing feelings, without abandoning the best of his wit. Mrs Warren is the rich co-owner of a string of brothels, having as a fallen woman risen from terrible poverty. Her clever daughter, Vivie, educated with her mother’s ill-gotten gains, knows nothing of this. In the course of the play they are forced to understand each other, and themselves, in a very touching process of self-revelation. Felicity Kendal was entirely convincing as the unrepentant rich madame — glamorous, bossy and faux-genteel — and Lucy Briggs-Owen was excellent as her priggish, intellectual daughter struggling with contradictory feelings. The play may not be great but it is one of Shaw’s best.
The White Guard is not really a great play either, perhaps because it was originally written as a novel and then dramatised under almost impossible conditions. Although the novel was a celebration of a White Russian intellectual family, much like Bulgakov’s own, who were opposed to the revolution, it was none the less dramatised for the post-revolutionary Moscow Art Theatre under the harsh eyes of the Soviet censors. Stalin — unaccountably — loved it and saw it at least 20 times. The play ran for nearly 1,000 performances, perhaps because so many Russians responded to its elegiac sense of the loss inflicted upon people like themselves.
What makes it a great piece of theatre is Howard Davies’s outstanding production at the Lyttelton — the third in his Russian trilogy. Bunny Christie’s sets are hugely impressive; the curtain rises on the Turbin family’s vast family living room in a Kiev apartment, with immense windows looking down on to a chaos we never see but constantly hear, of shouting, gunshots and terrifying explosions. The sound designer, Terry King, has contributed greatly to the atmosphere throughout. It is the winter of 1918: Kiev is in the hands of a puppet German governor and is being fought over by pro-Tsarist White Russians (such as the Turbins), Ukrainian nationalists and the approaching Red Army. Confronted with terror and loss, the Turbins and their hangers-on and fellow soldiers nonetheless talk and joke together in the refuge of the apartment. They eat, sing, quarrel and get drunk with Russian volatility, careering from pathos to bathos, from tragedy to sentimentality, from heartbreak to comedy.
Such rapid Chekhovian shifts of mood and meaning are very difficult to achieve, and Bulgakov is not Chekhov (I am convinced the problem lies with the script rather than the accomplished cast). There are moments of inconsistency and imbalance throughout: the heroine’s cowardly husband is a stereotypical upper class prat, while she is too human to be associated with such a two-dimensional joke. Her louche admirer, by contrast, combines absurdity with real feeling. It’s as if Bulgakov cannot consistently control mood and tone, a weakness that is even more obvious in his famous novel The Master and Margarita. Still, this is a powerful production.
The best of these plays is Tennessee Williams’s brilliantly funny Spring Storm, which I had never seen or read. It was forgotten, unpublished until 1996, rarely performed and had never been shown outside the US until the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton produced it last year, in tandem with Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon. Both were directed by Laurie Sansom. The productions were so outstanding that Nicholas Hytner of the National Theatre brought plays and company to the Cottesloe in a triumph for regional theatre.
Set in the Mississippi Delta in 1937, Spring Storm is a tragedy of sexual longing and a comedy of the shabby-genteel manners of the decaying South. Heavenly Critchfield, a highly-sexed beauty from a fading family, hesitates between two men — one of them elementally atractive in the mould of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and the other an appealing and socially desirable rich man.
All the concerns of Williams’s later plays are developed here, with such elegance and control that it is hard to believe that this first play was dismissed as worthless by his writing tutor. It is brilliantly funny, witty, accomplished and beautifully directed: of all these productions, Spring Storm is the one not to miss.