Five years after Democracy, playwright Michael Frayn, director Michael Blakemore and actor Roger Allam have reunited back at the National Theatre, where Frayn’s latest play Afterlife received its world premiere last night (4 June 2008, previews from 27 May) in the NT Lyttelton, running in rep until 14 August (See News, 7 Apr 2008).
Afterlife investigates the life of the Austrian impresario and founder of the Salzburg Festival, Max Reinhardt (Allam). Each year at Salzburg, Reinhardt directed the morality play Everyman, about God sending Death to summon a representative of mankind for judgement. Then in 1938 Hitler sends Death into Austria where Reinhardt, a Jew, is left as vulnerable as Everyman himself and must now face judgement himself.
After premiering at the National in 2003, Frayn’s last, multi award-winning full-length play Democracy, directed by Blakemore and starring Allam, transferred to the West End and was subsequently mounted on Broadway. Frayn’s other plays include Copenhagen, Noises Off, Donkeys’ Years, Alarms and Excursions, Benefactors and The Crimson Hotel.
Afterlife is directed by Frayn’s long-term collaborator Michael Blakemore and designed by Peter Davison. The cast also features David Burke, Abigail Cruttenden, Peter Forbes, Glyn Grain, Selina Griffiths and David Schofield.
Overnight critics were in the main underwhelmed by Afterlife, which they variously described as “crushingly disappointing”, “repetitive”, “spirit-sapping” and “pretentious”. Several conceded that they could see what Frayn was attempting, but nevertheless decided that “in practice, it does not quite work”. Despite some “exquisite moments” in Blakemore’s “superbly marshalled” production, even the “usually fine” Roger Allam was unable to rise above the flawed material for critics. The fact that the play, written largely in rhyming couplets, comes so soon after Tony Harrison’s critically panned verse drama Fram also prompted unhappy recollections and comparisons. However, Afterlife did find a big fan in The Times’ Sam Marlowe who, while acknowledging that the “writing is unashamedly contrived”, felt that the overall “experience still dazzles”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “It is a commonplace to say that the director plays God, and it is an intended irony at the heart of Michael Frayn’s new play …
After life, of course, there is death, and that’s a fair summary of both the subject matter of the play and its impact on the audience. This is a crushingly disappointing evening, one in which Frayn’s single tattered theme – that of the overlap between life and art – yields no variation … Unlike the glorious theatrical frippery of Noises Off, this play is stuck in its own metaphor of self-aggrandisement … Generally, Allam’s performance doesn’t take off (although I wish his two ghastly and unnecessary wigs would) and remains grounded along with the relentless rhyming couplets Frayn employs in his merging of the Everyman play with the automatic ‘real life’ scenes. You don’t feel that anyone’s heart is in the show … For once, Frayn is caught in a no man’s land between his own forensic intelligence and his baser theatrical instincts: result, astonishingly, dullness.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Is anyone at the National Theatre responsible for protecting their most famous writers and ensuring they do not risk their reputations? Does its director, Nicholas Hytner, ensure the latest works of these playwrights are produced on grounds of merit rather than of reputations for masterworks like Copenhagen? … This slightly amusing new play by Michael Frayn … comes less than two months after the endless, haphazard trek of Tony Harrison’s Fram at the National … Afterlife strikes me as an arid eccentricity, best suited to remain in the bottom drawer of a remarkable playwright. Michael Blakemore’s production with designer Peter Davison’s imposing, high windowed exterior of Reinhardt’s own baroque Baroque palace … seems designed to dazzle us with spectacle and high life rather than conflict or debate … Roger Allam’s suave, smart-suited Reinhardt, with ever gesturing hands and mobile head, doggedly tries to energise a character who remains an outline figure … The rich Everyman becomes, in Frayn’s tiresomely underlined and repetitive treatment, Reinhardt’s alter ego … Frayn blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, just as Reinhardt believed the theatre director should. But such theorising was not enough to give him a theatrical Afterlife, anymore than this play deserves one.
Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) – “The insoluble mysteries of art and existence are evoked in Michael Frayn’s new play. As in the writer’s recent works Copenhagen and Democracy, the point of lift-off is located in real life; as in 1982’s Noises Off and 1990’s Look Look, the treatment is metatheatrical … Afterlife, directed with cool precision by Michael Blakemore, is a playful exploration of the ways in which language, faith and art express and shape our world. It presents not merely a notion of art reflecting life, but multiple mirrors reflecting back and forth an infinity of possibilities, bright, shining surfaces between which words and actions fly faster than light. Frayn’s intellectual preoccupations tend to crowd out immediacy, but the experience still dazzles … Roger Allam’s engaging Reinhardt is an erratic dynamo whose dream is to erase the boundaries between theatre and life … Frayn’s erudition sparkles and there’s a buoyant sense of fun in Blakemore’s production to match its braininess. The writing is unashamedly contrived – but artifice is part of its point … Frayn could have made the journey more emotionally engaging; but he makes a stimulating travelling companion.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “A couple of months ago, I ripped into Tony Harrison\'s verse drama Fram at the NT … Now comes Michael Frayn with a play about Max Reinhardt, a once celebrated Austrian impresario, who mounted stage productions with vast casts and served as the model for Uncle Max in The Sound of Music … If Reinhardt is remembered for anything today, it\'s probably for … his epic productions of the medieval English morality play Everyman, which he staged every year in Salzburg from 1920 … The parallels often seem excessively laboured. And because Hugo von Hofmannsthal\'s German version of Everyman was written in rhyming couplets, Frayn has seen fit to do likewise. Afterlife isn\'t quite as bad as the Harrison play. There are blessed intervals when Frayn actually allows his characters to speak in plain prose … At his considerable best Frayn can be both splendidly funny and intellectually stimulating, though rarely, like Stoppard, at the same time. Here, however, I fear he often seems like a pretentious bore. One is reminded of such earlier Frayn turkeys as Look Look and Here, and realises with a lurch of regret that he has another flop on his hands here … That usually fine actor Roger Allam is largely reduced to actor laddie bluster as Reinhardt … I felt a bit like the figure of Death myself as I emerged from this punishing, spirit-sapping production.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “While Frayn\'s play ripples with invention and is beautifully staged by Michael Blakemore, it is difficult to discover universal resonance in Reinhardt\'s career … Reinhardt, like Everyman, is an acquisitive materialist, and just as the symbolic figure of Death claims Everyman, so Reinhardt\'s career is destroyed by the 1938 Anschluss. You can see what Frayn is driving at: to suggest that art offers an equivalent to the religious afterlife and that the survival of Reinhardt\'s visionary idea of theatre as a waking dream matches Everyman\'s ultimate redemption. But, in practice, it does not quite work, because Frayn seems straitjacketed by the morality play format … In seeking to transform Reinhardt into Everyman, Frayn is forced to be factually selective … Blakemore\'s superbly marshalled production also contains some exquisite moments: best of all is one in which Reinhardt directs his footmen and maids in a mealtime minuet. This also allows the excellent Roger Allam to demonstrate that Reinhardt was most vibrantly alive when confronted by practical staging problems.”
- by Terri Paddock
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