26 NOVEMBER 1965, Page 13


Our Theatre in the 'Sixties


Trelawny of the 'Wells.' Platinum Cat. (Strand.) (Old Vic.)—The `TT is always a capricious wine,' wrote P. Morton rl 'Shand of champagne; `when very old, eleven bottles of a dozen will be found fie, and ullaged, while the twelfth is in perfect condition to pop and foam.' So to his other plays is Pinero's Trelawny, and the difference is neither in the characters nor in the situation—a love match between a young gentleman and an actress, lead- ing to family troubles and at last to a happy issue. This play's immortality comes from realising dramatically a most unlikely subject—no less than the tradition of the English theatre. Here at last, and only this once, Pinero cared and knew what he was about. The real hero of the Play is Edmund Kean.,

He is not one of the characters, doesn't appear at all except as a kind of ghost hovering over the central pivot of the action, but the play covers revolution and counter-revolution in the theatre, reaching back to the heyday of the high heroic, and forward to the anti-heroic style of today. It is a play about actors. Pinero wrote it in the 1890s to celebrate the birth of a new, naturalism. And Net in the 1860s, so that audiences might enjoy a nostalgic portrait of stagey old actors who were then thirty years out of date. They are now a hundred years away. As the play retreats in time it grows layer after layer like onion skins.

We now have•the pleasure of watching actors of the 1960s reverting to the vein of Ercles: Robert Stephens drops on one knee to return a glove; Wynne Clark rises with a carving knife to deliver a tragic oath in the middle of a party. A frightful apparition—Billie Whitelaw dressed for pantomime in plumes and ermine-trimmed, thigh-length red velvet with nothing below but cotton tights and laced boots—startles an old gentleman who had dropped in to pay a visit. And when the scene changes from theatrical digs to a chilly grey drawing7room in Cavendish Square, it 'brings a frightful sense of depriva- tion. The inmates of the drawing-room--our- selves across the footlights—haVe nothing to do but sleep or play cards. It is precisely why we are sitting in the theatre. These bohemians on-

r !) fronting the pallid bourgeoisie are grander and more gorgeous than anything the bourgeoisie can manage.

Even the steady citizens within the play cannot escape seduction. Sir William Gower, calling to upbraid the actress who has ensnared his grand- son, learns by chance that her mother acted with Kean. It is the wild oat come home to roost, so to speak. In no time he has buckled on Kean's sword and belt from Rose's creaking wicker basket, and is staggering round the stage, crook- backed, wagging a withered finger, in a weird Parody of Olivier's `Now is the winter of our discontent.'

If one ever had anything against stock charac= ters it won't stand up to Paul Curran. His Sir William is a beautiful study of a grumpy old Man, filling and overflowing any crannies the Playwright may have left. He is- temporarily in- toxicated, oblivious to the world around him, but as grudging and unpredictable as ever when he comes to. The trickiest moment of all is the high point of his performance. And like all good

tricks, the more monstrous the illusion the higher the pleasure when it comes off. We can't possibly know what Kean was like on the stage, though from Hazlitt's descriptions there were passages in his Richard remarkably like Olivier's; but this quavering romantic can give us the thrill of knowing that he once existed.

Pinero's characters are all types more or less, but these, being mostly actors, have an edge on the usual run. They are jealous, vain, superficial, and for once quite naturally so. Casting is a matter of life and death: `I'm hitting them hard this season, my darling,' says Ferdinand Gadd; and, glancing round to make sure his portly Julia can't hear: `Mrs. Telfer goes on for it. . . . Absurd, of course. But we daren't keep me Clifford from them any longer.' Watching him. one feels oneself a savage beast waiting to be fed.

Of course, Edward Petherbridge, with his drawl and his well-turned gestures, is quite wrong for a walking gentleman of the period. People who remember Gerald du Maurier will never get over it. But Gerald du Maurier, who created the part, was all wrong, too. The actor manager who pre- vented members of his company from kissing-- 'It may be what you feel, but it's damned un- attractive from the front row of the stalls. Can't you just say "I love you," and walk, yawn, and light a cigarette, and walk away?'--could never have got near Sir Thomas Clifford.

Perspectives swirl throughout the play: there is a brief encounter towards the end between Mr. and Mrs. Telfer of the old school. It is the triumph of the avant-garde. A new play is in production, preparing to startle the world with real locks and real door handles. Also real people and real problems—and this being England in the 1860s the problems were problems of class and would continue to be No for another century. No kings and queens, no speeches you can get your teeth into. Mrs. Telfer, mistress of thirteen queens in her time, sinks to wardrobe mistress, Mr. Telfer plays a bit part. Wynne Clark, with her booming voice and flashing red smile, Gerald James as her husband, now plumbing in real life the tragic depths he has plumbed nightly on the stage. moveoff into the shadows. To be replaced • by Robert Stephens, in his hour of glory, as the playwright who first heralded the approach Of Loamshire on the stage.

Audiences in the 1890s could have had no ink- ling of the wastes to come. They flocked to sentimentalise over the barbaric crinolines and dreadful wallpapers of thirty years before with the morbid self-congratulation that we reserve for the floating trousers and musical cigarette- boxes of the 1930s; while Motley's faithful sets and costumes today are wholly enchanting. Play- goers then could probably remember the worst excesses of the Telfers and their ilk, and were glad to have escaped. But they could also still enjoy Barry Sullivan's Richard III who 'swung his eyes one way and his sword another in a picture of stage villainy that from any lesser actor would have made the audience laugh. , . . He had majesty and power. ... He had classic taste and true judgment. . . .' Soon there won't be anyone who can remember Sullivan's Richard, which is perhaps a pity in an age which hankers after violence on the stage and has found no satisfac- tory solution. This admirer was George Bernard Shaw, never a reactionary and particularly not in the 'nineties. If we can't have Sullivan we can have the National Theatre's Trelawny, which gives at least an intimation of styles which have otherwise sunk without trace.

The Platinum Cat unfortunately gives off the pop, spackle, crack of the breakfast cereals which are its plot staple. Everyone is extremely noisy and either uncivil or insipid. Kenneth Williams regales us with his gardening voice, his Indian voice and his 'What about a giggle?' voice. But when he is unavoidably called away, to buy in provisions or use the phone box, the prospect on the stage is as bleak as the slush in the street.