Tynan (RSC)

After the astonishingly agile, multi-character virtuosity of Mark Setlock, the American actor who recently played on this same Arts Theatre stage in the Award-winning Fully Committed, Corin Redgrave’s solo turn as Tynan – the late, great theatre critic of the 1950s, literary adviser to Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in the 1960s and sometime theatrical producer – is an altogether more sedentary, but far from sedate, affair.

Seated centre stage in a wood office chair throughout, Redgrave speaks Kenneth Tynan’s own words, taken from the diaries he began in 1971, aged 43, that traced his decline and fall over the next nine years until his death in 1980.

Like the recent diaries of Simon Gray and the writing of Jeffrey Bernard (famously brought to the stage in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell), there’s something both morbidly fascinating and compulsive about a character who is simultaneously so self-destructive and yet so deeply self-aware. As the inscription of Tynan’s own words that loom over the stage have it, “I know it is bad form to kick a man when he is down, but what do you do if the man who is down is also the man doing the kicking?”

This howl from the dark of an individual as he’s beset by doubts about everything from his career and personal life to his long, slow battles with emphysema and the paralysis of his own will doesn’t make for easy company. But as magnetically played by Corin Redgrave, you simultaneously can’t take your eyes off this Tynan while barely able to watch him at times.

In real life, Tynan brought a startling yet painful objectivity to his various predicaments in his remorselessly honest chronicling of them, and Redgrave completely inhabits this uninhibited man with the sour drawl (but none of Tynan’s accompanying characteristic stammer) of self-knowledge.

Though this is a play about the human condition rather than Tynan’s critical one, theatre fans will also relish some of the anecdotes on Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Joan Littlewood and John Gielgud, while of the critics still working today, Michael Billington gets a name-check (and a knowing laugh) from being described as a young man, which he still was at the time Tynan quotes him.

On Broadway, two of its best playhouses are named in honour of theatre critics (the Brooks Atkinson and Walter Kerr). While the same hasn’t happened here, a play like this makes a far more moving testament to what a critic actually does: illuminate what’s going on in the dark, whether it be of the theatre or of his own soul.

– Mark Shenton

NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from October 2004 and this production’s original run at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Critics, Brendan Behan remarked, are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, have seen it done every day, but can’t do it themselves. Kenneth Tynan, who wrote for the Observer before going on to found the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier, was the exception that proved the rule.

“Be light, stinging, insolent and melancholy” he once wrote to himself – and he was all of these. Any play, therefore, drawn from the diaries he kept between 1970 to his death in 1980, is at the least, bound to be very well-written.

In addition to this, Tynan wrote with exceptional candour and sense of self-deprecation about his life and his sexual peccadilloes, which included a taste for spanking – and being spanked. One adventure, recounted in graphic detail and which is definitely not to be recommended, involves a vodka enema.

The play charts Tynan’s decline, creatively and physically, as he succumbs to a rare form of emphysema. He was vain, silly and selfish, sometimes wildly wrong – but he was also a genius who believed that theatre really mattered.

Tynan, which forms part of the programme of new work at the Royal Shakespeare Company this season, is the second attempt in the past few years to bring Birmingham’s finest to the stage, following Smoking with Lulu at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse and London’s Soho Theatre in 2001/2.

Physically, Peter Eyre, who starred in Janet Munsil’s earlier play, captured Tynan much better than Corin Redgrave does here. Redgrave is bear-like where Tynan was slight, though Tynan’s creators Richard Nelson and Colin Chambers have the advantage of putting Tynan’s own words into Redgrave’s mouth.

Indeed Redgrave more closely resembles Alan Latchley, the football manager character the late Peter Cook created for the Clive Anderson show shortly before his death – an irony I’m sure Tynan himself would have enjoyed.

Redgrave is a fine actor but can be mannered – his sniffs in King Lear, also in the Stratford repertory, drove one critic to apoplexy – but fortunately here he’s at his most restrained. Sat before a backdrop, emblazoned with a quote from Tynan, for an unbroken hour-and-a-half, Redgrave is never less than entertaining, sometimes moving, even when the lines delivered could prove approximate to the accompanying text.
This is a worthy tribute to “outrageous aplomb.”

– Pete Wood (reviewed at Stratford’s Swan Theatre)