“Today the theatre has failed all of us, and we suffer from this failure”
This Farewell to the Theatre is a new play at the Hampstead Theatre by Richard Nelson, about Harley Granville Barker. It should not be confused with Farewell to the Theatre, a play by Harley Granville Barker which finally received a premiere at the Rose Kingston last year. They are different beasts, though both skirt around similiar issues of disillusionment and disenchantment, and the former is set at the time at which the latter was actually written.
Nelson tells the story of a group of British ex-pats in the sleepy Massachusetts town of Williamstown in 1916. The Great War is being waged in Europe but has yet to pull in the US and the concerns of this motley crew are of a much more personal nature. Barker has fallen out of love with both the theatre and his wife and finds himself in a boarding house run by an English widow, Dorothy, who is still in mourning. Her brother Henry is a lecturer at the local university but professional jealousies are hampering his progress; glamourous Beatrice is a married actress conducting an affair with a young student; George is looking for a better job; and Frank, who is a reciter of Dickens, is hiding himself away from a horrible truth.
It is one of those plays where people talk a lot but little actually ‘happens’; an air of melancholy torpor pervades this corner of New England, but as this group slowly confide, share and reveal themselves, a sense of community builds up which begins to heal some of the wounds nurtured here. More specifically, it is Barker’s faith in humanity and love for the theatre that is revitalised yet our central character remains somewhat elusive throughout. Nelson gives us a sense of the sharp intelligence and acerbic wit of the man, well characterised here by Ben Chaplin, but little else besides, little reason why this is a character who deserves our time, our sympathy, our interest. Ultimately, it comes down to the message of the play, such as it exists, which ends up as yet another of those self-regarding missives about the importance of theatre in our lives.
It is perhaps a little incongruous that I have an issue with this, given how big a role theatre plays in my life (although not professionally), but I do think that it is an area where people all too easily lose perspective. In these times of austerity, a great hoo-hah was raised about cuts to the arts at a time when so many other things, arguably just as important if not more so, were also being slashed. And likewise here, such a focus on the internal dilemmas of these protagonists and the almost insufferably twee ending seems at odds with the realities that were being faced by their countrymen across the ocean.
Perhaps more importantly, I found it really rather dull as well. Roger Michell’s direction is just too laconic for so static a piece of writing; Hildegard Bechtler’s set seems to mute her natural instincts in an awkwardly positioned mini-thrust design. Were it not for the occasional flashes of acting excellence that forced their way through, I would probably have left the theatre. Jason Watkins’ emotional repression is most affecting, Tara Fitzgerald’s Beatrice livens up her scenes with her glee at her affair and when Jemma Redgrave’s Dorothy finally breaks through her reserve, it is scintillating stuff. But it was too little too late for me in what has to be one of my least favourite things I’ve seen this year so far.