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Michael Coveney: A matinee, a Racine play... and Beckett for afters

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What a strange evening at Jermyn Street for the second authorised European staging of Beckett's radio play All That Fall producer Gene David Kirk greeted first-nighters - including the great Gambon's friend A A Gill, with the Blonde in tow - dressed like a fashion show mannequin, glittering in a high-collar black suit studded with diamante and sporting outrageous Swarovski-encrusted handmade shoes.

The chatterati and the critics shovelled themselves into the 70-seat hothouse - which always suggests to me, I don't know why, an atmosphere of Sheridan Morley's front parlour - for a glorious black comedy of Irish rural backchat and banter.

As they left, they were each given a goodie bag of free Floris samples, perhaps intended as a heavy-handed hint to the smellier members of the critical fraternity, by no means a tiny  minority.

No sign of director Trevor Nunn, though, probably ensconced in a boite round the corner with more of a blue denim dress code. Turns out, according to a Daily Telegraph preview piece the other day, that Nunn has been bursting to do the piece for 20 years. As it involves a dramatic train arrival, quite a lot of characters, and a good story, I imagine he was thinking along the lines of a sort of Celtic Twilight Express.

Obviously that was a non-starter with the Beckett estate, who insisted the thing be done in the theatre as a radio play. But the whole point of it being a radio play is that you don't see what's happening. Nunn's literal-minded staging is quite fun, and there's no complaint about seeing Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon creating a bleak alternative to the delightful railway carriage scenario they instigated in Yasmina Reza's The Unexpected Man at the Duchess some years ago.

Another surprising statement in that interview was Nunn's insistence that people shouldn't read the play before they see it, even discouraging them in the production's press release from trying to find it, as though it hadn't been published by Faber these last thirty years and wasn't readily available in any half-decent bookshop or library. I know people don't read much any more, but why insult their intelligence by suggesting they know nothing of the greatest poetic dramatist of the twentieth century?

Here's to the ladies (and gents) who lunch and take in a matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler's... like Elaine Stritch in Company, I'll drink to that, and to them.

I've often noted that the grey pound rules at National Theatre matinees, or on any night of the week at the Orange Tree (where I'm going tonight to see a prophetic 1970 Jules Feiffer play about a US Presidential election), but I was quite shocked at the almost uniform seniority of the Donmar audience for yesterday's matinee of Berenice, a play you would have thought rather severe for retired married couples and single ladies from the Home Counties.

My first thought was: am I too young for this play? My second: will they be able to survive it? I've long since given up trying to second guess what an elderly audience makes of anything, ever since I saw a crowd of pensioners in Salisbury, of all places, lapping up a weird sex and ultra-violent bill of fare from Paines Plough at a Thursday matinee.

The Racine built inexorably to its climax yesterday afternoon, and gripped like a vice. Like our reviewer, Theo Bosanquet, I wasn't sure about the flat-pack IKEA nature of Lucy Osborne's high-flying palace gangway, but I liked the sand, and the sandals.

And I loved the acting in Josie Rourke's production, which comes from three of my current favourites: Anne-Marie Duff as the Palestinian queen Berenice, Stephen Campbell Mooore as the new Roman emperor throwing her over for duty, and Dominic Rowan (who can find gently inflected humour in the glummest situation) as the lumbered, love-lorn go-between.

They have a liquid text to speak,too, provided by Booker prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst in unrhymed pentameters, which certainly convey the gravitas if not the heavy, rhythmic tread of Racine's wonderful alexandrines.

One of Rowan's lines struck me as a good example of Hollinghurst's steady, wry grip: "Her eyes may grow accustomed to my own," he sighs, just missing out on sounding like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady; and "excess of pain has overwhelmed my wits," manages to convey the essence of Racine without exactly sounding like him.

Not even Robert Lowell thought you could "do" Racine's metre in English, though Robert David Macdonald had a very good try in his version of Phaedra for Glenda Jackson. The beauty of Racine lies in the amount of time the characters take to convey it. Being witty and sleek about the verse, as Hollinghurst is, sort of misses the point, and certainly the rhythm.

His English-sounding characters are almost as garrulous and lightweight (in an idiomatic manner) as Beckett's in All That Fall in Jermyn Street. It's an extraordinary thing that in writing for the radio, Beckett sounds far less like himself than he does in the theatre, and Eileen Atkins gets full value from the self-mocking humour: "For there was a moment there," she says, "I remember now, I was so plunged in sorrow I wouldn't have heard a steam roller go over me."

Nunn doesn't quite show us the roller in the background, but it's a close call. The car into which Atkins is bundled like a bale of hay, pushed up from  the rear by the driver, is a little cardboard cut-out similar to the one the family usually climb aboard in Gypsy. "Wherever we go, whatever we do, we're gonna go through it... together..." Only a matter of time before Trev gets round to that one, I reckon. Perhaps he'll do it on the radio with someone who can't sing.


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