Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Seagull (1975)

By Anton Chekhov (1895).
Translated and adapted by Galina von Meck and Lindsay Anderson.
Opened: Lyric Theatre, London, 28 October 1975.

By 1975 Lindsay Anderson (1923-94), who had been associated with the Royal Court Theatre on and off since the late Fifties, was growing frustrated:
At the Court I’ve never been able to work with a company because the theatre can’t support one. And it is also dedicated to new plays – new plays are challenging, but also a bit limiting. I’ve done nothing but new plays for years. And I wanted to do The Seagull. (Guardian, 18 September 1975)
For some months he’d been in talks with Helen Montagu, joint managing director of HM Tennent, about forming a new West End repertory company. The Seagull (or The Sea Gull, as the translators preferred to style it) was ideally suited to this environment, and he assembled a distinguished cast of actors for his new venture, among them Joan Plowright, Frank Grimes, Peter McEnery and Helen Mirren. Anderson was upbeat (for once), confident that audiences like to see the same actors in different parts and actors like the versatility of ‘rep’. Mirren, interviewed by Sheridan Morley on the eve of opening, struck a note of uncharacteristic scepticism:
It’s still too early to talk about a real company at the Lyric, despite what it says on the posters. It takes months to get a real company feeling unless you all come from roughly the same theatrical background, as we did in Teeth’n’Smiles. At the Lyric we’re a very mixed group, and there’s no real community like there is in Sloane Square – now we simply meet for rehearsals and the theatre only comes to life for an hour or two each evening… I also don’t believe you can get a real company going without absolute equality of salaries, and that’s not what’s happening at the Lyric.
Early in the twentieth century, as Chekhov’s plays began to find a place in the British repertory, a view developed that they were best performed by permanent companies (somewhat along the lines of the Moscow Arts Theatre). Patrick Miles has suggested that this was based on a misunderstanding. The plays ‘require ensemble-acting’ and are themselves ‘powerful ensemble-makers’, he comments, but we need to ‘disentangle the Chekhovian ensemble from the Stanislavskian model of a theatre company’. The Lyric Company didn’t stay together for long, but long enough to deliver two fine, if sharply contrasted, pieces of ensemble drama. (The Seagull played in repertory with a Ben Travers farce, The Bed Before Yesterday.)

Bernard Shaw believed that Chekhov was aiming at a new theatrical genre, ‘tragicomedy’, that is to say ‘a play that was essentially a comedy but into which the tragedy of life boldly intruded.’ The elements of romantic comedy are certainly piled high in The Seagull. Everybody is in love with the wrong person: Trepliov loves Nina; Masha loves Trepliov; Nina loves Trigorin, and Medvedenko loves Masha. But Trepliov’s unreturned affections have tragic consequences: in Act Three he attempts suicide; in Act Four he succeeds.

Just as generic distinctions slip and slide, so are meanings elided and diffused, beginning with the play’s title. The eponymous seagull is both a prop and a symbol. As such it is traded among three characters – a successful writer, a would-be writer and a would-be actress. To the actress it’s naturally a prop; to the writers it’s naturally a symbol. Nina recognises that, for Trepliov who’s given to ‘talking unintelligibly in a sort of symbolic way’, it’s ‘apparently another symbol’ but confesses herself ‘too simple-minded’ to understand it. (Her artless admission might almost be Chekhov’s riposte to the accusation that he has over-determined his meanings with this multivalent image.) For the hapless Trepliov as he lays the dead bird at her feet, it seems to be an improbable love-token. For the hardened Trigorin, accustomed to factoring experience into art, it’s a subject for a short story and a metaphorical premonition of Nina’s vulnerability. He asks to have the dead bird stuffed (thus reconverting it into a prop). When the result is presented to him two years later, he claims to have no memory of making the request. The returning Nina of Act Four identifies with the seagull. Or does she? The Russian language has no definite or indefinite article, with the result that her famous words, ‘Ya – chayka’, hover in the gap between ‘I am a seagull’ and ‘I am the seagull’.

I saw this production late in 1975. Sadly, at a distance of 36 years, I remember very little of it: only a single image, like a tableau, perhaps the play-within-a-play in Act One. When I try to recall Mirren’s performance as Nina only one adjective comes to mind: ‘demure’. Actually, I don’t suppose it was anything of the sort. By Act Four, when Nina has had an affair and an illegitimate child, she has left behind whatever ‘demureness’ she started out with. I surmise that what stuck in the memory (irritatingly elbowing out any other thoughts) was the contrast between Mirren’s appearance here and the last time I’d seen her on stage, three months earlier, as frazzled rock chick Maggie in Teeth’n’Smiles. Gone were the slashed skirt and platform shoes, to be replaced by sober, buttoned-up period dress.

So I must turn to the critics for a reminder, who I find, whatever reservations they had about the old-fashioned staging and some of the casting, were united in their praise for La Mirren. Benedict Nightingale was struck more by the similarities between Maggie and Nina than the differences:
As Ms Mirren played them, the two women didn’t come from separate species… When her Nina reappeared in Act Four, she gave the impression not of a badly wilted flower but of a plant that had grown hardier with time.
Robert Cushman made the same point:
Miss Mirren… begins almost as Alice in Wonderland, and is superbly unabashed about it. But along with Alice’s wide-eyed hero-worship goes Alice’s instinctive practicality. There is nothing distracted about her final scene; the famous antiphony (‘I’m a seagull; no, I’m an actress’) becomes a balancing of possibilities and there is no doubt that the second will win. She is not going to become a thing in anyone’s dream. The part, though Miss Mirren finds a totally different style for it, is analogous to her rock singer in Teeth’n’Smiles, both doomed in theory, both survivors in fact.
Gavin Lambert also noted her approach to the final scene. Nina’s famous monologue is ‘usually played for tragic vulnerability,’ but ‘Helen’s performance implied that Nina, in spite of her hopeless obsession with Trigorin, was sustained by her belief that she could become a great actress.’ Charles Lewsen admired how, with ‘superb irony’, she ‘entirely eschews pathos in Nina’s final scene, quoting Konstantin’s symbolist play with a smile that displays the boy’s work as poor art, but a perfect expression of what has been.’

Nina’s final scene is critical to the play’s success. There are many, David Hare among them, who think that Chekhov’s playwriting is at fault here, condemning any actress who attempts the part to failure. Michael Billington points out that, after Trepliov has filled in her back-story for the benefit of the audience, ‘Nina herself enters out the night and has to convey two years of personal and professional failure in about ten minutes.’ Oleg Yefremov of the Moscow Arts Theatre has written:
The main question at the end, of course, is whether Nina is broken, finished as a person, or has attained a wisdom that will help her to believe. We have to understand why she has come, why she is seeing Trepliov again. (Chekhov on the British Stage, p129)
Peggy Ashcroft played Nina in a much-lauded 1936 production. Ashcroft’s biographer describes her trepidation as she approached that final scene. Fortifying herself backstage with a sip of brandy ‘to take off the edge of terror’, she sat ‘alone in a corner with a shawl over her head working herself up to her big entrance while the wind and rain effects whistled all around.’ Influenced by the director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, she believed that Nina was ‘destroyed’ by the end of the play, that her ‘protestations of belief in her future career’ were ‘only a covering up of her disbelief’ in herself. Helen Mirren’s approach to the character forty years later was very different.

[Note. Galina von Meck (1891-1985), whose translation was used in the production, was a grand-niece of Tchaikovsky: true cultural aristocracy. I’m guessing that Anderson had little or no Russian and adapted from a literal version she supplied. That’s how these things tend to be done in the London theatre, as I know to my cost. But I’d be interested to hear otherwise. Anderson’s diaries, as published, tell us nothing about this period at all.]


Michael Billington, Peggy Ashcroft (1988)
Robert Cushman, ‘Down in the country’, The Observer, 2 November 1975
Hugh Hebert, ‘A change of scenery’, Guardian, 18 September 1975
Charles Lewsen, ‘Chekhov’s perplexing challenge’, The Times, 29 October 1975
Patrick Miles, ed. and tr., Chekhov on the British Stage (1993)
Sheridan Morley, ‘Helen Mirren makes the West End’, The Times, 23 October 1975
Benedict Nightingale, ‘Life in the theatre’ in Helen Mirren – Prime Suspect: A Celebration, ed. Amy Rennert (1995)

Monday, 21 November 2011

O Lucky Man! (1973)

O Lucky Man! is, in a sense, a film about how we should live. Mick starts out in the first half of the film in search of status, gain and profit and is sent to prison; then he tries to lead a Good Life and that is equally disastrous. The end is a sort of ironic evocation, I suppose, of the Zen attitude to living, which is to live life and accept it and to smile the right kind of smile but not to ask why. In that way, I suppose, the film is open-ended.
(Lindsay Anderson, ‘Commentary’, 1994, in Never Apologise, p128)
Nobody realises what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.
(Lindsay Anderson, Diary, 17 March 1972)
My own film career has been peculiarly disastrous: even O Lucky Man! was a box-office failure, though I think it’s the kind of film people will come back to twenty years from now.
(Helen Mirren, quoted in The Times, 23 October 1975)
Generally, the British film industry has made a poor fist of reflecting Britain back to itself. Lindsay Anderson’s films were an exception. Embodying the contradictions of the director’s personality, they succeeded in marrying his individualistic auteur style with the demands of popular entertainment. O Lucky Man! was one of the most original films of its time. Somehow or other Anderson and producer Michael Medwin secured American finance for a film that resolutely resists the upstairs-downstairs, heritage-industry clichés that our American cousins expect. The Britain it portrays, albeit with the broad brush of satire, is venal and tawdry, populated by bent coppers, mad scientists, ruthless tycoons, flagellant judges and sex-starved landladies. Through it all, wearing a perpetual optimistic grin, is the irrepressible Malcolm McDowell as travelling salesman Mick Travis. Up and down he goes, on a picaresque roller-coaster of a plot. About half way through the film (which clocks in at just under three hours overall), he escapes from Dr Millar’s laboratory and is nearly run down by a minibus. It contains Alan Price’s band returning from a gig in the North, and, buried under a fur coat on the back seat, Helen Mirren. ‘This is Patricia,’ says Alan by way of introduction. ‘She’s very intelligent. She’s making a study of us.’ The well-heeled daughter of immoral financier Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), Patricia swiftly seduces the fresh-faced hero. On a city rooftop they share a champagne breakfast. Patricia dismisses Mick’s success-worship as ‘old-fashioned’ but supplies him with enough tantalising detail of her father’s wealth to inspire Mick to blag his way into the old man’s office and secure himself a job. No less avaricious than her father, Patricia meanwhile dumps Mick to marry the Duke of Belminster. Alan Price has a lyric on the soundtrack that sums up the spirit: ‘It’s around the world in circles turning’. When later we encounter Patricia and her Duke, the wheel of fortune has indeed turned and the once-affluent pair are sheltering on a bomb site among destitutes and meths-drinkers.

Anderson’s diaries have been published and they give a detailed and fascinating account of the troubled making of this film. ‘Patricia’ seems to have caused more grief than other characters, both in writing and casting. On 12 February 1972 screenwriter David Sherwin (who was evidently battling his own demons at the time) talks ‘vaguely and vehemently about how awful were Mick’s scenes with Patricia in the script; how they needed to be rewritten’. On 28 May they are still reworking the rooftop scene: ‘we hammered something out which at least seemed to have the merit of giving Patricia a positive character’. Mirren, we learn from the diaries, was not his first choice for the part. Interviews began on 7 January, when Anderson saw six or seven candidates. ‘Two attractive but rather freakish drop-outs are the most sparky’ but not posh enough for the financier’s daughter. On 2 February he sees more potential Patricias. He’s impressed by Fiona Lewis (‘authentically upper class’), less so by Helen Mirren, whom he finds ‘rather humourless (or seemingly so): prepared to think I find her RSC tradition “absolute shit”.’ Having decided that Mirren was ‘not very charming’ and ‘rather bossy’, he casts Fiona Lewis, although not before seeing some other actresses (an occasion that leaves him ‘sick and loose from the bowels’ on 15 February.) By the time principal shooting begins, he is regretting his decision, as the rooftop scene continues to drag: ‘Fiona is very weak and so makes it difficult – impossible – to build up Patricia into something big. I had a momentary attack of desperation this morning: surely I should have cast Helen Mirren?’ (18 May). But still he doesn’t go straight to her. He now decides he wants Vanessa Redgrave for the part (20 May). The next day he visits Redgrave in her dressing room at the Shaw Theatre and drops off the script. ‘She seemed to be ready to accept it pretty well sight unseen.’ His optimism must have been misplaced, for by 29 May we learn he has recast the part and is rehearsing Mirren as the new Patricia: ‘The scene reads quite well – the first time… well, say the second or third.’

Most actors in the film play two or more parts. Mirren remains in one part, except for a brief cameo as the bespectacled receptionist in the audition scene at the end. (She must also have appeared in the silent montage of the ‘Prologue’. Anderson’s diary on 11 August 1972 refers to her playing the Landowner’s Mistress in a scene presumably omitted from the final cut: ‘good sport, [she] puts on a curly C&A wig! She is not charging for her work this week – which is more than we deserve!’)

It’s instructive to compare the peppery account of working relationships that emerges from Anderson’s diary with the magnanimous verdict that Mirren gives elsewhere. In her book In the Frame she writes:
I had a funny relationship with Lindsay. We seemed to be old friends from the moment we met, able to tease one another and loving each other, or at least I loved him (p132).
In an interview for Venice Magazine in 2006, she elaborated:
Lindsay was very private, and yet intensely loyal to his actors. Very serious, and yet always you felt he was laughing at himself and everything else. He always seemed to be having this very dark internal laugh at the whole thing. He really put his inner being into his movies, I think. He really loved humanity, in a very Platonic way. He didn’t strike me as being very sexual, and he would seem to have this sort of Platonic love for the men he worked with, but also for a number of women. He adored Celia Johnson, for example.
She was one of the contributors to Gavin Lambert’s memoir of his friend. Although she admits to finding Anderson a less ‘gentle’ director in the theatre than on the film set, ‘he was so intelligent and articulate and talented that I longed, like many others, for his approval’. She has a more down-to-earth reason for his reluctance to cast her in O Lucky Man!: ‘He thought I was too fat.’ Once filming was underway, she sensed the writers’ difficulties with the rooftop scene:
It… seemed to go off in too many directions. But Lindsay was enormously patient with me. He made a few simple suggestions while feeding me champagne, and got me quite drunk. I thought I was terrible. But it worked.
From everything I’ve read about this brilliant, maverick figure, I conclude that the key to Anderson’s personality was an inclination to hurt the ones he loved; it was, for him, a sort of test. On this film, production designer Jocelyn Herbert was his chosen punchbag. One of his close circle of regular collaborators, she once got such a tongue-lashing from him that she walked off set. ‘I came to realise that he treated all his favourites that way,’ she told Gavin Lambert later. ‘Abuse was a kind of affection.’

Lindsay Anderson, The Diaries, ed. Paul Sutton (2004)
Lindsay Anderson, Never Apologise: The Collected Writings, ed. Paul Ryan (2004)
Gavin Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson: A Memoir (2000)
Alex Simon, ‘Helen Mirren: screen queen’, Venice Magazine, April 2006 (available here)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Teeth'n'Smiles (1975/6)

By David Hare

Royal Court Theatre, London, September 1975

Revived: Wyndham’s Theatre, London, May 1976

Jesus College, Cambridge, 9 June 1969, the night of the ‘May Ball’. (For reasons lost in the fog of history, ‘May Week’ in Cambridge is in June.) This is the setting for David Hare’s 1975 play about a rock band on the skids, who are hired to play to an indifferent audience of party-goers. As Hare recalled in an interview,

It was an extraordinary clash of two worlds: these May balls with people dressed up and performing a complete parody of a life that was over many, many years ago, and into that crashed these rock bands, like travelling people on the move.

(Time Out, 1975)

Hare was an undergraduate himself at Jesus from 1965-8, which makes this one of his most autobiographical plays. It was not a happy period for him. ‘At the time I didn’t know there was anything else,’ he told Ronald Hayman. ‘I thought that was probably what life was like. When I discovered it was just Cambridge, it was the biggest release of my life.’ Tempted to the college by the prospect of studying with veteran Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams, he quickly grew disillusioned. As well he might: while Marxism has virtually disappeared from the intellectual armoury in the decades since, the tradition of the May ball, which the young ideologue found so anachronistic in the 1960s, survives and flourishes into the new century. Somehow this disenchantment and bitterness found its way into the play, as he explained to Georg Gaston:

I would say that Teeth’n’Smiles is about the fag-end of idealism. It’s about utopianism when it turned sour. It’s about that stage people reach when they will do anything for an experience, and having originally enjoyed the vitality of the experience, they then become addicted to the experience.

(quoted in About Hare, p88)

The plot is minimal. The band bicker and while away the time between sets with silly games. There’s a drugs bust. Maggie (Helen Mirren), their lead singer, burns down the marquee, apparently in a self-willed effort to get herself sent to prison: Hare got very cross with the critics for failing to pick up on her motivation here (‘it was beyond their scope to engage with such an idea’) but perhaps, like me, they just found it implausible.

The university background is only lightly sketched in, represented by two stereotypes: a tongue-tied medical student, Anson (an early role for Antony Sher), and an obsequious college porter, Snead (Roger Hume). The playwright’s real interest is the band and its internecine strife. Maggie is testing their patience to breaking point. Can they carry on like this, having to sober her up in a cold bath before each show? No one understands why she’s unhappy. Arthur (Jack Shepherd), the band’s songwriter, has a stab at interpretation. It’s not that ‘she doesn’t know how to be happy’, he suggests, rather that ‘she’s frightened of being happy’. She saws off whatever branch she happens to be sitting on at the time. Pompous utterances like ‘the quality of the singing depends on the quality of the pain’ may trip off her tongue, but she betrays by a smirk that she considers any claims for pop music’s wider significance to be ‘bollocks’. In short, Maggie, inspired – certainly in Mirren’s portrayal of her – by Janis Joplin, is a train-wreck: unreliable, self-pitying, addictive, yet born to be a frontwoman.

In the words of the Times reviewer, ‘Helen Mirren erupts onto the platform, her hair cascading, her voice yelling from a pale face topped with lifeless eyes…’ The stage direction for her first number indicates the energy level Hare intended:

Then without a break the band go straight into the next number. Dazzling light. MAGGIE joins them, singing, burning off the fat as she goes.

I saw the original production at the Royal Court and made some scrappy notes at the time. Re-reading them now, I see that I was impressed by Mirren’s incredible attack; the energy was most emphatically there. I found her singing pretty awful; but somehow it didn’t matter too much, so carried away was I by the bravura of the performance. I was unsure about her accent, which wandered in and out of mockney. On reflection, that may have been intentional. Maggie is supposed to be emblematic of another 60s phenomenon: the inverted snobbery that made a middle-class kid aspire to be working-class. I found the play funny and very believable in atmosphere, but at risk like so much social realist writing from a sentimentality that oozed through the gaps between the expletives and the dirty jokes. A portentous and overlong speech by Saraffian (Dave King), the band’s manager, about the bombing of the Café de Paris during the War slowed up the action.* In a scene I pronounced ‘cloying’, Maggie and Arthur, one-time lovers, reminisced by the light of their glowing cigarettes. I seem to have responded better to the alcoholic excess of Maggie's second set as she bad-mouthed the audience (‘this is meant to be a freak-out not a Jewish funeral!’) before attempting to debag the keyboard player. Despite my conviction that Mirren was (to quote my adolescent self) a ‘High Priestess to interpret sacred texts’, I obviously revelled in the sight and sound of my favourite Shakespearean actress getting low and dirty in a modern drama.

In interviews given at the time, Mirren said she found continuity between this part and others she had played. She also found aspects of herself:

I’m very like Maggie in many ways, only she’s much more ballsy and gutsy than me. I endorse most of what Maggie says, in fact in many ways it’s difficult to talk about her because I feel so close to her...

When I was first offered the part I was so scared. I’ve never wanted to play a part so much since I played my first part when I was seven years old [Gretel]. I get very bored going to the theatre now. I’d much rather go to rock concerts [JJ Cale, Dr John and Led Zeppelin are among her favourites]. So when I was offered the part of Maggie, a singer, well, I’m not a natural audience, I’m a performer, I had to do it. Of course I felt scared about the singing, I love singing but I can’t sing. [Nick Bicat, music director for the production, says she can sing ‘because she’s herself and very brave’.]

(Time Out, 1975, parentheses in the original)

There aren’t many good parts for actresses. Maggie is a good strong part and that’s quite rare in modern theatre. So I like it for that. I don’t like it because it gets to me in a funny sort of way. Perhaps too close to sides of me I don’t much like. But it just makes me feel unattractive.

… Maggie’s doing it [struggling with a boring middle-class background] in one way. I don’t think that’s the only way to do it, possibly. But I’ve always had this sneaking admiration for people who go to the extremes of energy and wit. They’re terribly, horribly destructive often, but there’s something really fascinating and very lovable about them. I find it very difficult to let go. I mean I find it practically impossible to let go. I just get very sulky instead. I don’t think I can do a Maggie at all. I’m too self-conscious.

… When I played Miss Julie, it was the same cathartic experience, because you let it go. You let it all come out without ever actually committing yourself personally – although I do try to commit myself personally as much as possible on stage and try to make it as real and present as possible.

(NME, 1976)

Reality irrupted into the make-believe in ways no one had anticipated. One night as Mirren waited to go on, she was disturbed by a commotion from the street outside. It was a drunken Keith Moon, fabled drummer of The Who. He stumbled into her dressing room, told her how he’d heard great reports of the show, and then attempted to join her on stage. He was stopped by the management. She says she’s always regretted that missed opportunity to share the stage with a real rock’n’roll legend.


*In the Gaston interview (About Hare, p89), Hare admits this speech is a weakness of the play. Interestingly, he compares it to what he calls ‘the worst famous example of this sort’ – Nina’s speech in Act 4 of The Seagull where she recounts what has happened to her in the interval since Act 3. Chekhov telling, not showing. ‘It’s a speech that defeats every actress I’ve ever seen play the part,’ says Hare. (In 1975 Mirren went straight from Teeth’n’Smiles into rehearsals for The Seagull: she played Nina.)


Ronald Hayman, ‘David Hare: coming out of a different trap’, The Times, 30 August 1975

Charles Lewsen, ‘Evening of zestful good humour’, The Times, 3 September 1975

‘End of the acid era’, Time Out, 29 August 1975, 12-15

Andrew Tyler, ‘The acid dream is dead and lying in the West End’, New Musical Express, 12 June 1976, 8-9

Richard Boon, About Hare: The Playwright and the Work, 2003

Postscript, June 2013.
An interesting <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7bji1hBgAg">interview</a>
has turned up on YouTube. On 25 May 1976, as Teeth’n’Smiles transferred to the West End, Mirren appeared on
BBC’s news and current affairs show Tonight discussing the play
with interviewer Donald MacCormick. The segment includes a clip from the dress rehearsal
(one of the musical numbers).