Collected Stories at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
As a novelist myself with many novelist friends, I can attest that the moral wrangles outlined in Donald Margulies' play Collected Stories are totally true to form. I had a sinking feeling of déjà vu during many on-stage exchanges which echoed almost verbatim the sentiments and self-doubts expressed by myself and my peers. Yes, we writers do scrounge around for material from our lives and the lives of loved ones; we do question whether our characters' traits borrow too transparently from real people; we do worry after our first, inevitably semi-autobiographical, book has been published that we may have drained our experience well dry; and we do panic as we search for the next spark of inspiration.
In Margulies' two-hander the stakes are heightened as these creative rites of passage are tackled within the confines of a relationship between two women, a mentor and her protégé. Helen Mirren plays Ruth Steiner, a feisty fiftysomething and renowned Jewish short story writer, and Anne-Marie Duff is Lisa Morrison, Steiner's pupil who matures almost unrecognisably as both woman and author over the six-year course of the action.
In an early lesson at Ruth's book-lined Greenwich Village apartment (sumptuously realised by John Gunter), Ruth instructs Lisa on the necessary mercilessness of being a writer: you can't censor your creative impulses for fear of hurting someone's feeling, she says, you've got to get in close and shoot. By the end of the play, Ruth's words have come back to haunt her as Lisa appropriates the details of Ruth's real-life love with a famous alcoholic poet for the plot of her new novel.
While the literary world is fertile ground for such treachery, Margulies maintains that his story is less about the lives of writers and more about the universal struggle which ensues as one generation reluctantly relinquishes control and acclaim to the next. Even before we learn of Lisa's betrayal, we watch in sympathy for Ruth as the balance of power tips scene by scene. Lisa brims with school-girl gawkishness and blind worship for her hero in the beginning but, as she finds success with her writing, it is Ruth who starts to feel threatened, insecure and in need of approval.
There's more than a hint of an All About Eve-style change of fortunes about the proceedings, complete with ceremony/acceptance speech at the end. But, to the dramatic detriment of the play, Lisa's act seems to be more one of weakness than calculation, leaving the final showdown a slightly deflated affair.
Director Howard Davies coaxes admirable performances out of his twosome. Mirren is believable, if understated, as the hard-bitten Ruth and Duff pulls off Lisa's rapid transformation quite remarkably. If we yearn to know a bit more about the characters and their emotional baggage, it is no fault of these two. The author simply didn't get in close enough.