James Saunders, who died in 2004, was a unique and underrated playwright whose early plays had a witty existentialism and playful inventiveness that certainly influenced Tom Stoppard and deserve an overdue re-evaluation.
Words, words, words, are what Hamlet says he’s reading. And there’s a tumbling cascade of them, glinting and glittering through Saunders’ first full-length success, Next Time I’ll Sing To You (1962), which Anthony Clark has delightedly unleashed in this revival.
The play is certainly dated in its self-conscious “theatricality,” as a group of actors and their director investigate “the pretence behind the pretence” in telling, eventually, the story of a real-life Essex hermit, Jimmy Mason, in the first half of the last century.
But no-one else in the theatre of that time was making connections between the Europeanism of Sartre and Pirandello and the primness of the English comic tradition. Saunders brings the two worlds together while investigating the life of one man, a forgotten recluse.
It’s as though Hamlet were to go much further in contemplating Yorick’s skull. The rarefied nature of it all is a challenge, still, I admit, but the relish in the playing of Clark’s cast is completely beguiling.
Jamie Newall huffs and puffs as the hermit claiming rights against his own interpretation, a surreal strand that leads to the director trying to pull off a false beard that won’t budge: it’s real after all. And the director, Rudge, played with magnificent gestural sweep by Aden Gillett, anchors the proceedings in his own vanity.
Gillett’s co-conspirators are Brendan Patricks as the sardonic, handsome Dust, Roger Parkins as the audience-baiting, joke-dealing Meff (the role first played by Michael Caine, just before he went off to make Zulu) and Holly Elmes as the reluctant Lizzie, one of identical twins (she’s the quiet one; the other, also called Lizzie, is merely taciturn, same difference).
In the search for the meaning of life, the patient is finally declared to have dislocated his soul. His tragedy is resisted most forcefully, and surprisingly, by Lizzie, who celebrates the sex urge by declaring that there is a moral obligation to do “it”; significantly, she is perhaps the only character not to believe that she is part of a performance.
Lizzie lives out of time, while the others inhabit an all too real world of artifice where audience members are chatted to, the overheard offstage chink of cups heralds an interval, and Meff asks if by any chance there’s a Lithuanian watchmaker, or a rapist, in the stalls tonight. The hush is deafening, which I think is the response Saunders is after.