“The play spans nearly 20 years from 1943 to 1962 and follows the life of Susan who begins as a very young woman, a teenager, in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. Everything is intense and heightened for her then, but the play charts her life and her search for stimulus and happiness in the post-war world. It’s about what happens to our early ideals and the effect of disillusionment. People often associate David Hare with ‘state of the nation’ plays and this is political, but it examines the state of the nation through personal lives and emotions. Characters are passionate about politics and the play examines the nation in that way.”
Of course the state of the nation changed enormously in the years covered by Plenty; in many ways 1956 was a key year in international and domestic politics, most especially with the Suez crisis that produced a national breakdown of confidence. Susan’s own descent towards madness mirrors events on a grander scale, but Hattie sees its scope as wider than the political-personal (for instance, Hare explores the nature of Bohemianism) and its tone as similarly wide-ranging:
“The play runs the full gamut of emotions. It’s very funny, very shocking. It deals with hope and disillusion, aspiration and the difficulty of maintaining principles.”
Given her views on the all-embracing impact of Plenty, Hattie’s response to my question about why David Hare deserves such a season is not really surprising. First of all he is “prolific”, not necessarily a plus point, but she goes on to point out the enormous range and “incredibly incisive” impact of his work, the ability to amuse and shock, the thought-provoking power of his plays. The Sheffield season is deliberately chosen for its variety. Plenty (1978) is the earliest of three plays that cover a quarter century of Hare’s work for the theatre and the variety is emphasised by the three different theatres being used: the Studio, the wide-open spaces of the Crucible and the traditional proscenium arch of the Lyceum. This could well make for an excitingly non-traditional staging of Plenty:
“It’s the first time Plenty has been staged in a small informal theatre. David Hare is quite excited at the thought of seeing the play stripped down. The original National Theatre production was at the Lyttelton, with proscenium arch, and that was also true of the New York production. It’s full of short scenes and, without the need for set changes or clearing one scene before another can start, it will be much more flexible.”
Hattie’s enthusiasm goes beyond the part and the play to the chance to work with director Thea Sharrock (“You feel in safe hands when you can really trust the director”) in the refurbished Crucible Studio. She has never worked at the Crucible, though, as she points out, she has played the Lyceum and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Something of the range of her work may be gauged by the fact that the plays were Twelfth Night at Leeds and See How They Run on tour at the Lyceum. Hattie immediately dismisses my suggestion that touring in a classic farce was a somewhat surprising career move for an actor with copious National Theatre credits to her name: in fact, she was delighted to be working with the fine actor Douglas Hodge on his directorial debut.
Despite her varied career (which also takes in Sense and Sensibility and Lark Rise to Candleford on television), Hattie says she has never acted in a David Hare play before – and then remembers:
“Actually I did this play, not the same part, but the one Kirsty Bushell is playing, on radio five or six years ago, but I don’t think I fully understood it then. We only had five days for it and at Sheffield we have four weeks rehearsal, so it’s a very different experience.”
Plenty: February 3rd-26th, Studio
Racing Demon: February 10th-March 5th, Crucible
Breath of Life: February 16th-26th, Lyceum
For tickets, contact the box office on 0114 249 6000, or visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk
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