The Art of the Well-made Play

Amid the fad for immersive drama, a Rattigan/Hare double-bill shows you just can’t beat good writing

Anne McElvoy

We’ve supped deep of Terence Rattigan after an anniversary year: proof that the well-made play has turned out to be a serviceable creature. After Flarepath, The Deep Blue Sea and Cause Célèbre it takes some nerve to stage a homage to Rattigan as David Hare does in South Downs: half of a double bill at the Pinter Theatre, with Rattigan’s peerless study of disloyalty and redemption, The Browning Version, as the second half. It’s an audacious but mutually enriching two-for-one.

South Downs shows an altogether warmer side to Hare than his chilly deconstructions of politicians and power. It turns on the spiritual and sexual teenage angst of Blakemore, a precocious teenager (Alex Lawther), bumping up against the dusty conventions of his 1960s public school, while worrying about the Bomb, Harold Wilson and the precise nature of the Eucharist. 

The boy seeks solace with Anna Chancellor, the mother of the school’s alpha male prefect — who is just about the only heterosexual in the entire production. All this could easily cloy, but casting is the key to the poignancy and charm of Jeremy Herrin’s production. Heavy-hipped and generous, Chancellor gives the boy some rare lightness of being, in a world of constraint. Nicholas Farrell is the arid chaplain saddled with explaining transubstantiation to adolescent boys, with about as little chance of understanding their lives as of resolving the sacred mysteries. 

He and Chancellor return in The Browning Version: he is Andrew Crocker-Harris, “the Himmler of the lower fifth”, ending a failed career as a teacher, while his unfaithful, casually cruel wife flaunts her adultery. Ah, happy days.

When one of the schoolboys presents him with a copy of Browning’s Aeschylus translation, the gesture unleashes first disaster but ultimately, a form of salvation. The homosexual undertones are controlled, but ever-present. Decide for yourself if the ending is an act of atonement or an assignation. The cleverness of Angus Jackson’s direction lies in the doubt.

From the South Downs to North London and Babel by Wildworks, the theatre company which last year had a hit with The Passion in Port Talbot. That had the mesmeric Michael Sheen as a secularised Jesus (you did not seriously expect a contemporary Passion play to make the Messiah religious, did you?) and the tunefully rowdy Manic Street Preachers as part of the finale. A cast of a thousand mainly civilian actors made the trek to Calvary. 

By way of a follow-up, we were offered a vague adaptation of the Babel legend in Caledonian Park, near Holloway prison. The only possible explanation for the venue was that it had a clock tower, which is very nice for Holloway but hardly a coup de théâtre in itself.

I wouldn’t bother you with all this, were it not very telling about the vogue for immersive drama and its limitations. Babel was woefully thin on form, content and execution. The sole reason it got anywhere near being produced, let alone on this scale, with several London theatres and the Battersea Arts Centre involved, was that it promised London a big immersive event of its own.

So we shuffled through the bushes at dusk in search of something worth watching. “Look closer, stay a little longer,” pleaded a woman in a tatty armchair somewhere in the foliage. A tent featured knitted versions of London sights: knit one, purl one for the London Eye, which is impressive, for about 30 seconds.

The message seemed to be that diverse London is a Babel of its own, but that we have become alienated from each other. Well I never. 

The only crunchy bit was an eviction scene, with evident sympathies for the Occupy movement, but not even a clear political punch to follow. This dreary lecture was made-to-measure for the soft multiculturalism of cultural bureaucrats in Olympic year, but good immersive drama demands a lot more than that. It can be weird and wonderful, like Punchdrunk’s excellent Faust and Macbeth-reinterpretation Sleep No More, or disturbing, like the Kursk story, staged by Sound & Fury. Now that an innovation has become a theatrical fashion, the result is too often second-rate and gimmick-ridden.

Back to the blessed relief of theatres with stages and seats: the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (its smaller stage) has Belong by the promising young writer Bola Agbaje. It centres on conflicted urban identity, through the odyssey of Kayode (Lucian Msamati, who played the other half of Lenny Henry as the twins in the National’s recent Comedy of Errors).

A self-important MP who has lost his seat after an un-PC foot-in-mouth moment, Kayode retreats to the controlling bosom of terrifying Mamma (Pamela Nomvete) and plots his second coming in Nigerian politics.

Pretty soon, he’s out of his depth amid the local machinations. “Where are my manners?” inquires the local chieftain, before plonking a Rolex and two wads of cash on the table. Agbaje explores the fraught territory of belonging in neither home nor adopted country, while feeling the pull of both. “However long you live in London,” says a rueful character, “people will always ask you where you’re from.” 

Belong has the young writer’s shortcomings of being a bit shouty and a pace, under Indhu Rubasingham’s direction, which veers into the hectic. But on this showing, I’d come back for more from Agbaje. She has strong characters, narrative drive and something challenging to say. Nothing is more immersive than that. 

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