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Beauty & critical bestiality

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The great French actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault wrote, in his Reflections on the Theatre, that dramatic art extends between two extremes of pure gesture and pure speech. As an example of the first he cited a two-hour mime play he made of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. And, in the second category, Racine's Phedre.

And then I remembered dimly that Peter Gill had once staged a version of Faulkner's novel at the National Theatre; it's the story of the death of a farmer's wife and how her family fulfils, with great physical difficulty, her wish to be buried in the town she came from.

I reached for my trusty volumes of London Theatre Record and there, in the 1985 edition, I found the reviews of Gill's production (the cast included June Watson, Danny Webb. Ewan Stewart and James Hayes, all happily still with us and working).... and, guess what? The very next production in the folio is Phedra, as directed (and designed) by Philip Prowse at the Aldwych starring Glenda Jackson, with the late Joyce Redman as the nurse and Gerard Murphy as Theseus.

The odd thing is that my memory of both shows - the Phedra (an Anglicised spelling in Robert David MacDonald's translation, which heroically followed Racine's alexandrine verse pattern), had originated at the Glasgow Citizens, and had also been seen at the Old Vic in the previous year - rather blurs the distinction Barrault found between the two plays. You could not invent two directors more different from each other than Gill and Prowse, but both would know exactly what the French maestro was talking about, and both practised moments of epiphany on stage that combined elegance of expression with an intensity of physical representation.

And there was indeed a sculptured beauty to both productions, the second more ornate and baroque, obviously, than the first, which glowed with a throbbing - and, I'm afraid I said, humourless - integrity. And both were infinitely more interesting and accomplished than the nauseating production of Simon Stephens' Three Kingdoms at the Lyric, Hammersmith, which has led to a name-calling cat fight among certain critics on the blogosphere.

To read Barrault, or indeed Peter Brook, is to encounter a mind throughly engaged with the art, history and theoretical language of the theatre but grounded in the reality of the present day actor's art and its place in the wider world. The great danger at the moment is for critics to address merely each other rather than the public, a sterile and somewhat ridiculous occupation that threatens to engulf us all.  

Gill's As I Lay Dying came out of the National Theatre's studio, which was re-opened as a sort of think tank and forcing house following a war of reprisals with the Arts Council and its funding policies. There were other new plays, too, in this season, a reminder of how much we owe to the tenacity and foresight first of Peter Hall, and then to his successor, Richard Eyre, in keeping a flame of innovation alight in  difficult times: without them there would be no War Horse, no One Man, Two Guvnors, no London Road.

And mention of Joyce Redman reminds me of what a superb actress she was. She died recently aged 93, but had not been on the stage for many years. She was a preferred colleague of Laurence Olivier both in his war-time Old Vic seasons (she was Lady Anne to his Richard III) and in the opening salvoes of the National Theatre at the same theatre (Emilia to his Othello, Elizabeth Proctor in his production of The Crucible).

Inevitably, of course, she'll be remembered for the sexy mastication scene in the movie of Tom Jones, chewing on the chicken with Albert Finney with more than one eye on the bedroom afters. She was a firebrand Irish actress (though never associated with the Abbey in Dublin) and one you never wanted to see leave the stage.

I was talking about her the other night at the Lyric, Hammersmith, with Sheila Reid, another veteran of the Olivier NT company, and she told me about her spirit backstage and her black eye-lashes and a good deal more that amounted to a raucous mixture of trade secrets and winking indiscretions. How wonderful she sounded; but, you see, all that came across in her performances. You didn't need to know any more.

Sheila Reid herself... what a trouper! There she was recently, taking a break from the compellingly awful Benidorm on television, propping up Samantha Spiro's spirited performance in Filumena at the Almeida. She's as small as a bird, Sheila, and she must be made of wire.

And she never stops working in the theatre, usually quite near the cutting edge. She'll be going to Edinburgh in the summer to appear with Nichola McAuliffe and Julian Glover in a new play by McAuliffe, Maurice's Jubilee. It's in the diary. Now, back to Barrault... he has the most marvellous chapter on Antonin Artaud and Total Theatre; I think that's what we call "immersive" nowadays, and not just because of all that rain we've been having.


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