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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Hampstead Theatre


  Ph: Stephen Cummiskey

In 1989, the American playwright Richard Nelson wrote Some Americans Abroad. It was about a group of stateside academics who, together with a handful of their students, visit London in order to soak up British culture in general and the theatre in particular.
In his latest play he reverses things by setting the piece in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where a group of English expats are experiencing the joys and heartbreak of Academia in a local college.
Called Farewell to the Theatre, a title appropriated from the British dramatist Harley Granville Barker, a central character in the play, it could just as easily, and more felicitously, have been called Some English Abroad, thus making it the perfect companion piece to the earlier play.
The time is 1916. Granville Barker (Ben Chaplin, terrific), now aged 39 and having enjoyed a certain acclaim with The Voysey Inheritance, Waste and The Madras House, and who, it could be said, invented what today we call a director’s theatre, is going through a period of profound disillusionment.
Chief among his frustrations is his failure to establish a national theatre. Had World War I not intervened, it might, even, have happened. There is also a crisis in his private life. His actress wife refuses to give him a divorce, making it impossible to marry American novelist Helen Huntingdon.
So he abandons the London theatre and war-torn Britain for the lucrative lecture circuit in America, initially taking up residence in a Williamstown boarding house attached to the college. He is not alone in his self-imposed exile. Also in residence is an actress called Beatrice Hale (Tara Fitzgerald), who is having an illicit affair with a good-looking, hyper-confident American student (Williams Frencj), and Frank Spraight (Jason Watkins), a visiting actor well known for his Dickens recitals.
On hand, too, are Dorothy (Jemma Redgrave), a widow who runs the boarding house, and her brother Henry (Louis Hilyer), a campus professor.
At one point in the play Granville Barker, who doubts the theatre has anything new to offer him, declares his intention of wanting to write a play about what people are rather than what they do, and that’s exactly what Nelson achieves in this superbly written, beautifully acted, spaciously designed (by Hildegard Bechtler) and exquisitely directed (by Roger Michell) production.
As is so often the case in Chekhov (from whom Nelson clearly takes his inspiration), it is not always what we see that provides the drama, but what we’re made to feel.
Indeed, one of the play’s most affecting scenes takes place offstage and involves a cruel power-play between Henry, who, having been allowed to direct a college production of Twelfth Night, is publically eviscerated and humiliated by the resident Shakespearean professor, who, had he not been indisposed, would most certainly have directed it himself. This is academia at its most brutal – a subject Nelson vigorously explored in Some Americans Abroad.
Also, what Nelson so effectively conveys is the unhappiness at the core of his characters: Granville Barker’s lack of fulfillment, both privately and professionally; Frank’s inability to express himself except when on stage; Beatrice’s unconditional love for her duplicitous student; and, as the most Chekhovian of all the characters – in Redgrave’s touchingly Chekhovian performance – Dorothy’s inability to forego her widow’s robes long after the death of her husband.

Few plays in the last five years or so have resonated as loudly for me as Farewell to the Theatre. You have to see it. 


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