To See or Not to See

Some plays just don't stand the test of time: Twelfth Night at the Wyndham Theatre; Loot at the Tricycle Theatre

How many Hamlets is enough? To go again, or not to go: that is the question. I decided recently not to see David Tennant’s Hamlet, highly praised though it was, because I have seen so many other productions and know the play better than any other.

My first Hamlet was David Warner’s famous 1965 Stratford performance. The last, if it was to be the last, was a remarkable and touching performance by Ben Whishaw, in Trevor Nunn’s outstanding 2004 production at the Old Vic. Whishaw played Hamlet as a vulnerable, geeky teen, and while that removed some of the resonance from Hamlet’s greatest rhetoric, it was one of the most plausible interpretations I’ve seen. Even so, I began to feel that the charm of Thespis may not last forever, and is perhaps felt most acutely by the young.

Is there still any reason, 40 years on, to see new productions of plays one knows and has often thought about in the past? With this in mind, I went rather uncertainly to see two plays I first saw in the ’60s – Joe Orton’s Loot, now at the Tricycle Theatre, and Twelfth Night at the Wyndham Theatre/Donmar West End. Quite apart from the effects of time on oneself, what about the effects of time on plays? I had always doubted that Twelfth Night had much resonance in the 20th century and now it is the 21st. I also suspected that even Orton might have lost some of his late ’60s dazzle.

However if one is going to see Twelfth Night at all, with all its faults, Michael Grandage’s production is without a doubt worth the journey. It was the best I have seen so far, largely because of the unforgettable performance of Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. He was mesmerising. There can be thrilling moments in the theatre, when you realise that you are in the hands – in the emotional control – of a great artist, and Jacobi has that power. Malvolio is in many ways a very unsatisfactory role, and Jacobi chose to ham it up. But what a ham! Every slight turn of the wrist, every hint of a look, every triple and quadruple meaning was dramatic genius. And no one could dismiss Jacobi as being merely a bit of a ham. He is a great tragic actor and his Cyrano of long ago (RSC 1983) remains one of the best things I have seen.

As all schoolchildren used to know, there is often, at least for contemporary audiences, something about Shakespeare’s low life and comic scenes that is rather leaden – not so much light relief as heavy distraction from the more interesting bits. There is also the problem that the speed and complexity of the language is sometimes, if not hard to follow, at least hard to enjoy. The complex witticisms of 16th- and 17th-century humour are not really for us any more, young or old. But none the less, Grandage’s production manages to infuse comic life into the play, not only with Jacobi but also with three other accomplished performances from Ron Cook as Sir Toby Belch, Guy Henry as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Zubin Varla as Feste the fool. It is very funny at times, and very physical, with dancing, acrobatics and body language that are not just actorly, but good. The humour is often visual. Malvolio’s yellow hose and cross garters are very cleverly recreated in (vaguely) modern dress, and the difference in size between the short, sexy Sir Toby and the daffy beanpole Sir Andrew is well exploited. Zubin Varla’s singing is bewitching.

Even so, this excellent production cannot deal with the central problem of the play: its comedy and its cruelty can never come to a satisfactory ending together. What remains above all is its great language and its many famous lines, which are now truisms. A couplet that perhaps should be better known is Antonio’s protest against the appearance of goodness and beauty, when it is not what it seems: “In nature there’s no blemish but the mind;/None can be called deformed but the unkind.” This is, of course, a judgment in advance against all those central characters who show or allow unkindness to Malvolio.

Sadly, I came to the same conclusion with Loot. It is hard to imagine now how dazzlingly brilliant Orton’s macabre comedies seemed in the late ’60s. Loot, which I saw in an early production, was to me almost amazingly knowing, daring, subversive, clever and above all funny. Homosexuality was still, just, illegal when Orton wrote it and plays were still subject to the will of the Lord Chamberlain: he declared in 1967 that Loot could only be put on if certain phrases not wholly respectful to the Royal Family, Sacred Heart and the religion of Pakistani kids were cut and if the word buggery were replaced with beggary. So it was easier for a writer to be transgressive in those prim times, much easier to shock and delight an audience and to be funny in the process. For all its wit, Loot hasn’t really survived the explosion of social, sexual and religious freedom which was ignited around the time of Orton’s early death. Comedy depends on a sense of transgression, which is probably why contemporary comedy is so often not very funny. Far from being transgressive, it is usually trying to toe the conventional liberal line.

All the same, Sean Holmes’s capable production at the Tricycle did as much for Loot as can be done, I think. David Haig as the sinister policeman Truscott carries the show, and the rest of the cast are confident and convincing. There is a contemporary feel in the way the police behave. They are unashamedly indifferent to everyone’s civil liberties and feelings, and Truscott jubilantly ignores Mr McCleavy’s protests at being bullied by a man apparently from the water board. Whether today’s police (and water board men) are better or worse than those of Orton’s worldview, the abuse of state power in an anarchic, rather Kafka-esque world is something of Orton that has survived. Loot is certainly worth seeing for a first time, partly because the Tricycle in Kilburn is a great theatre to go to. The same applies to Orton’s much better play, Entertaining Mr Sloane, which is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. The Tricycle tries in the best sense to be innovative and experimental, although in aspiring to “inclusion” and “community work” it runs the risk of being conventional.

My conclusion was that both plays are very well worth seeing, for a first time, and Twelfth Night for Jacobi alone, but that neither play was quite good enough to survive either the 40- or the 400-year test. Few plays are. Even fewer still are really worth seeing repeatedly. Perhaps as with novels, a play has something to do with novelty, with psychological and emotional discovery. Perhaps – differently from music – one can have an excess of it, which does sicken the appetite. For a while, at least.

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