The David Hare Season at Sheffield Theatres begins with what is now acknowledged as one of the playwright’s finest early plays, Plenty (1978). However, as an admirer of Hare’s work coming to this play for the first time, I found it oddly disappointing without quite knowing why. My only consolation is that British audiences have apparently always found it more problematic than Americans.
The story promises much. As a teenager Susan Traherne has the excitement and sense of purpose of working for the SOE in occupied France. After the war her life is fragmented between living as the wife of a moderately successful diplomat and being lured into Bohemian irresponsibility by her friend Alice Park. The many short scenes do not follow chronologically. The first two cover the two poles of her existence: the break-up with her husband and the dangerous wartime adventure which she shares with an unknown man who becomes a lost ideal to her. The play ends with a sort of Time and the Conways effect: going back to the time of optimism after showing the ruin of hopes.
Perhaps there is a lack of clarity in the story-telling early on. Hare goes for the big effects (a naked man bleeding on the floor, a parachute drop) rather than establishing characters and situations and it is vital that every line of dialogue is clear. Unfortunately the Studio is not as intimate as it seems and some of the rapid-fire throwaways didn’t get through to where I was sitting. Or perhaps my difficulty lies in the selfishness of the main character: loss of youthful idealism requires the initial presence of idealism.
However, there are some excellent performances. As Susan becomes more unhinged, Hattie Morahan becomes more compelling. The eyes are fiercely unfocussed, the over-lipsticked mouth triumphant in a lop-sided sneer as she loses control – or is she just cruelly manipulative? Bohemianism gets short shrift in Kirsty Bushell’s predatory Alice, a performance so strong in its smug rebellion as to be almost unwatchable at times. Edward Bennett gives a nuanced and initially very funny reading of Susan’s diplomat husband and the more two-dimensional characters are uniformly well played, notably Bruce Alexander’s honourable Blimp of an ambassador.
Thea Sharrock’s direction is fluent and dramatic, with good use of the surprisingly spacious Studio acting area. Lucy Osborne’s economical designs work well, with the gaps between scenes well covered by appropriate music/sound. It should be good; maybe I’ll return mid-run to see if it has more to say to me.