Vampire (Bush Theatre) Bedroom Farce (Lyttelton) Twelfth Night (Greenwich) Three typical specimens of contemporary theatre this week : the fringe play (anarchic), the bourgeois comedy (anodyne) and the Shakespeare set text (decorative).
At the Bush, Snoo Wilson's Vampire is a rewritten version of the play first presented in 1974. Like Devil's Island it is a three-act generation play, which sets out to show how the traditions of each age create their own 'vampires.' The first act is set in Wales in the '1850s and is a vigorous piece of expressionist drama. Three young sisters avidly peep at their father's diary and speculate on the 'dark deeds' recorded there. He is a Welsh parson with a.puritanical horror of the flesh (as well as a taste for it), He exhorts his daughters to remember that their function is childbearing, and when the youngest rebels by pulling up her shift and exposing herself in company, cries out : 'Gentle society cannot take this sort of madness!' We are left to wonder just where is the madness as we watch him destroying his daughters with holy frenzy.
The second act takes us to the Home Counties in the 'last summer' of 1914. It is a chaotic, brutally funny piece involving three upper-class ladies (one a descendant of the Welsh family), Joseph and the Virgin Mary, Freud, Jung, a cricketer, an ox, a fanged baby born of an astral pregnancy, and other characters. The 'vampire' here is presumably the lady who exhorts all young Englishmen to serve at the Front, and urges a mass dispatch of white feathers to those who are reluctant to make the grand sacrifice.
The third act, which takes place next May, is set in Kew Gardens and in a cargo plane above the Atlantic. It introduces two punk rockers, two Hell's Angels and a lady (descended from Act 2) who seems to have attained some essential freedom by releasing herself from memory and contingency and even the nervous system (she can put her hand in a toaster without hurt or damage). She commits suicide rather than do violence to others, so I suppose that if the vampires are the Hell's Angels then she is the celestial one.
This final act is as close as the play gets to 'telling a story' and it's significant that it is the weakest section. Snoo Wilson is better at sending up theatrical conventions than he is at employing them. He gives the impression of a writer who is bored stiff by the ordinary processes of narrative, and perhaps by the ordinary processes of `reality,' But I couldn't believe in his transcendent lady. However, Linda Marlowe plays the role—and several others—with conviction, and there are also excellent performances by Patti Love and Nick Edmett. Dusty Hughes keeps the pot bubbling with a production that isconstantly inventive and amusing.
Though Vampire deals with historical periods it is completely a-historical in its presentation of the destructive element. Here, it says, is a limited consciousness, here a liberated one. But it leaves you with the idea of basic daemonic forces in man expressing themselves differently at different times—a good old bourgeois notion. Still, it's a change to have a play you can chew over, and I admired the formal adventurousness and the sardonic cut of the Writing.
Bourgeois perspectives, as well as comic talent, account for the success and the limitations of Alan Ayck bourn's plays. Bedroom Farce at the National is the first of three due in London this year. It's about a, young married couple, Trevor and Susannah, who are so obsessed by their love-hate relationship that they can't see what a nuisance they are to other people. The others inclUde Trevor's parents, who have settled cosily into hollow middle-age, and whose idea of bliss is eating pilchards in bed and reading Tom Brown's Schooldays. There's Trevor's old flame, now married to an ambitious young executive but itching for something more passionate than business success. And there's a 'normal' married couple, who enjoy a relationship of hearty infantility (she likes to squirt him with shaving cream, he likes to hide her boots in the bed).
During the action of the play the obsessed couple contrive, either separately or together, to invade the bedrooms of each of the other couples and to destroy their peace. They also provoke some revelations of the discords beneath the surface of these apparently well-ordered relationships. We learn, for example, that Trevor's mother is aware that she is, essentially, 'ignored' by her husband; while the 'normal' wife is getting bored with marital sex, and her husband finds alternative satisfactions in his store of girlie magazines.
However, the play skips quickly over these revelations and concentrates on keeping us amused. The fun comes primarily from Alan Ayckbourn's skill at setting up a series of situations fraught with social embarrassment, as when Trevor and his wife are having a murderous physical battle in one of the bedrooms and the owner comes in offering Cornish pasties. (In plays like this, social embarrassment often seems to be the strongest of all human emotions, and I found myself wondering whether the chief fault of the central couple wasn't just that they were impervious to it.) There are also some running gags which the directors (Alan Ayckbourn and Peter Hall) have allowed to run away with them: Trevor wearing a coat many sizes too big for him, the executive struggling in and out of bed while crippled by a slipped disc.
Stephen Moore and Maria Aitken are painfully real as the obsessed couple, though even they cannot cope with the banality of the writing in their central confrontation; and I was particularly impressed by Derek Newark as a bullish husband and Susan Littler as his would-be-normal wife.
It's not a long evening at two and a quarter hours, but it's long enough to be imprisoned within suburban perspectives and by the end I was suffering from claustrophobia.
Shakespeare sinks from sight at Greenwich in a relentlessly decorative production of Twelfth Night. The pain of Malvolio's humiliation is forgotten as Max Wall goes through his comic routines. Gayle Hunnicut brings nothing but beauty to the role of Viola and inevitably sabotages the part. OnlY Anna Carteret, as Olivia, gives us a sense of true involvement with the character and a sensitive articulation of the verse. All the disturbing implications about our sexual role' playing are glossed over in this production by John Cox, which runs for three and a quarter hours and reduces all to prettiness.