Some may view this revival of John Whiting's 1948 play is an indulgence on the part of Orange Tree director Sam Walters. During his lifetime, Whiting was singularly unsuccessful on the commercial stage save for The Devils, notoriously filmed by Ken Russell. After his death in 1963, though his work is admired by an artistic elite, it's seldom revived.
Linguistically, Saint's Day is a dense, difficult piece. Its stylised and mannered use of colloquialism would seem to support the view of Whiting as an absurdist forefather to Pinter and Beckett but, in fact, it's more akin to the writing of his continental contemporaries such as Genet and Sartre, as well as his TS Eliot and JB Priestley.
The play's subject matter doesn't let viewers off easily either. It's an invective against the irrationality of violence (this from a man who was a conscientious objector, then a soldier) and the abrogation of personal responsibility. Since the characters reflect moral attitudes, through symbolism laid on with a trowel in the dialogue, plot and character development doesn't much exist, and where it does, it's highly contrived.
In 1950, on the 25th of January (the accepted date of St Paul's conversion), 83-year-old Paul Southman (Leonard Fenton), a sharp-tongued poet and satirist, is about to be celebrated by a group of artists led by fashionable young man of letters Robert Procathren (Ben Warwick). For 25 years, Paul has hidden away - with his neurotic granddaughter Stella and her artist husband Charles - in a quiet village where he likes to wage war with the locals. The arrival of Procathren and three marauding army deserters leads to tragic consequences, not least insanity and execution.
As you can probably gather then, Saint's Day isn't a barrel of laughs, though it does have its moments. There are florid references to Greek tragedy and drama of an earlier age: death (with perhaps shades of Webster) as 'the maggot in the peacock', for instance. This is not Eliot's poetry-as-prose, but rather, prose as poetry.
There's a lot of script to get through and, for the most part, it's well delivered by what's fast becoming the Orange Tree's repertory company. Fenton's amiably rambling poet, reduced to delusions, is effectively handled (although he appeared a little under-rehearsed on the night), and the excellent Ed Stoppard plays Charles with a fiery commitment not entirely justified by Whiting's ponderous text. As Stella, Celia Nelson does her best with an unmanageable part. Procathren's conversion from a belief in Man to chaotic revolutionary is not entirely convincing intellectually, but commands a good performance from the talented Warwick.
Baffling, yes. Worthy of revival, perhaps. Unsettling, definitely.
- Stephen Gilchrist