Recruiting reflectionsDate: 15 February 2012
By an extraordinary coincidence, Josie Rourke's delightful revival of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, with which she announces her tenure at the Donmar Warehouse, comes exactly 20 years after Nicholas Hytner's more artificial version at the National, just as the first National revival, in 1963, came exactly twenty years after the play had last been seen in London at all.
Of course, there have been other revivals between Hytner's and Rourke's: Richard Wilson played a supercilious Brazen and Susan Dury a buoyantly bisexual Silvia (I was expecting more of that quality in Nancy Carroll last night, but she went down the pantomime route en travestie) in a Nicolas Kent touring production in 1978; and ten years after that, Max Stafford-Clark paired the play, inspirationally, with Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, which is about convicts presenting the Farquhar in Australia.
But it's still quite a shock to realise how rarely this comic masterpiece is seen. The recent revivals of She Stoops to Conquer at the National and The Way of the World in Sheffield are very important in this respect, keeping us in touch with the great English stage comedy tradition.
William Gaskill directed that first National production, with Olivier as Captain Brazen - his first entrance was entirely subliminal, flashing wordlessly across the top of the stage - Max Adrian as Justice Balance, Colin Blakely as Sergeant Kite, a real old sweat, and a magical young couple as Plume and Silvia; Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith.
An audience didn't know, but I think they could tell, that Stephens and Smith were falling in love for real in this show. "Sdeath! There's something in this fellow that charms me!" exclaimed Stephens after a clinch with the disguised Silvia. The line got a good laugh at the Donmar last night, but there was something a bit deeper with Smith and Stephens.
Another thing. Have you noticed how much older everyone playing these great roles now is? Tobias Menzies and Nancy Carroll are nearer forty, not thirty (Smith was 29, Stephens 32). Michael Sheen was virtually middle-aged as Hamlet at the Young Vic. Our national theatres are run by 50 year-olds; Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn were both in their mid-twenties when they first ran the RSC.
Anyway, the play is a joy at the Donmar, and Josie Rourke has pulled off the very difficult trick of maintaining standards while making a fresh start. It was a new tactic to see her glad-handing in the bar beforehand; Mendes and Grandage were always very low profile on first nights. Mind you, neither of them, as far as we know, ever had a startling mauve frock to flaunt with abandon.
One or two of the banquettes in the theatre proper have been re-upholstered in a floral pattern, presumably as part of the design, to bring a little fresh country air to the proceedings. It's an outdoor play, set in Shrewsbury, with a street market and public walks.
The Gaskill production was designed by Rene Allio to resemble the redbrick Queen Anne buildings on the main street in Amersham. The Observer critic of the day, Bamber Gascoigne, said that "every scene on this stage acquired an air of sharpened reality, like life on a winter's day with frost and sun." Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon had small roles, a very young Lynn Redgrave was a wonderful, apple-cheeked country wench.
Hytner's casting paired Alex Jennings with Ken Stott as Plume and Kite, with Des Barrit as a fleshy Brazen and Sally Dexter an extremely rumbustious Silvia. But I didn't feel anyone's heart was in that show, as it most evidently is at the Donmar.