27 AUGUST 1983, Page 24


Tuppence coloured shocker

Giles Gordon

Arden of Faversham (RSC: The Pit) Macbeth (RSC: Barbican) You Can't Take It With You (National: Lyttelton) Agnes of God (Greenwich)

'It's difficult to avoid feeling that 1 the unknown playwright of Arden of Faversham, published in 1592, was cocking a snook at the young Shakespeare. The two villains, who time and again botch the kill- ing of landgrabbing Arden (Christopher Benjamin, deep), are named Black Will (John Bowe, darkly despairing) and Shakebag (David Bradley, sceptical and frustrated); and Arden was Shakespeare's mother's name. There are frequent hints of the greater author in this domestic tragedy, and it can't be chance that the schematic RSC have paired it with Macbeth. For Alice (Jenny Agutter), Arden's wife, does for her husband what Lady Macbeth arranged for her King. Alice is a Lady Macbeth of the home counties. In Terry Hands's obstreperous production she even places one of the murder weapons in the hands of her servant, Michael (Mark Rylance, more petrified than compromised though that too).

Although the play is a tuppence-coloured shocker — and Nigel Hess's music adds to the impression of Saturday Night Theatre — it comes across with an uncertainty of tone. The previous RSC production by Buzz Goodbody played the text straight, and the implicit humour, such as is there, derived from the actors' commitment to the play rather than to the audience. Dorothy Tutin was a woman on heat, desperate for her lover (Robert O'Mahoney here) whereas Miss Agutter is, simply, agitated, more concerned that the neighbours shouldn't find out what's going on. Never- theless, the cast, speaks well, and there are flashes of poetry, of insight. If nothing else, the play indicates how hard it is to murder a man, at least without being discovered.

As to Macbeth, who would have thought the Scots play to have had so little blood in it? Chris Dyer's set for Howard Davies's reading is a waste land of scaffolding and a few props — tables, chairs — that suggests no place, period or context. Likewise, the dreary, characterless costumes of Poppy Mitchell, though George Fenton's music, with percussionists and their funny in- struments on stage, at times lurches towards goonery. This bloodless, gutless, unat-

mospheric though clearly spoken blocking out of a great play opened at Stratford in March 1982, and that it's come to London in a substantially unaltered form suggests that there's no one in the RSC with the authority or inclination to take Mr Davies aside and say: 'Sorry, chum; your produc- tions of 20th-century plays are fine but this,

together with your Henry VIII, won't do.'

Bob Peck is conscientious as Macbeth but he's no king; Sara Kestelman as his lady seems to have given the struggle up months ago, Pete Postlethwaite is almost haunting as a Banquo who has Macbeth's number from the beginning. The Porter's scene is disastrous.

Michael Bogdanov goes a long way, in the last few minutes of his production of You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, towards ruining the previous two and a half hours. In the

manner that the RSC made fashionable, he has his cast take it in turn to sing little songs or tap dance as if for the folks at home. It's embarrassing and suggests a retrospective lack of confidence in the play.

Grant Hicks's deliciously cluttered set looks like what the V&A might run up to suggest the living room of a once well- heeled if eccentric New York family in 1936. The Depression might not have hap- pened as far as smiling, content grandfather Martin Vanderhof (Jimmy Jewel) is con- cerned, which is odd as he's been out of work, voluntarily, for 35 years. But as he didn't pay income tax when in work this may explain the reasonably easy living, although meals consist of corn flakes and candy. Mr Jewel gives a lovely, detailed per- formance, radiating contentment, and is almost the only actor who doesn't give the impression of trying too hard. He also seems the genuine, period article, delivering his lines and quips as if in a Marx Brothers movie. Kaufman wrote three of their screenplays (in collaboration with Morrie Ryskind), and many of the gags are that good.

And yet. It's less that the production hasn't fully come together than that each member of the zany household cultivates his or her interests to the exclusion of an in- terest in the others; which may be why the family, at times smugly and sentimentally, regards itself as happy. The production though seems to be played for individual jokes rather than for continuity and flow and to reveal character in action.

Geraldine McEwan as Mrs Sycamore, who became a playwright because a typewriter was once delivered by mistake, is squeaky and charming but falls back on her mannerisms too easily. Gary Raymond is wasted as her model-making husband.

Janine Duvitski contorts her body absurdly as an aspiring Pavlova. Arthur Whybrow is funny as a fireworks fanatic (and the whizi" ing fireworks are fun if not so extravagant as in Inner Voices). Norman Beaton is ra- diant and unselfconscious as a servant. Greg Hicks as the young lover is, for once, cast within his range and is fine. Margaret Courtenay is regal as the Grand Duchess Olga. And Brewster Mason, as Boris Kolenkhov, ballet teacher, is more responsible than anyone for appearing in ruin the marital prospects of Alice (WenclY Morgan, doughty) by practising a wrestling fall on her intended's wealthy fath,e! (Ronald Hines, impassive, frustrated). Throughout, a seagull dangles from the, ceiling, implying in the director's Minn some comparison with Chekhov, but Alice is not, in the end, left on the shelf, nor are the Vanderhofs and their friends bored with life. Agnes of God is about a psychiatrist (Susannah York doing her best) who is sent in to talk to a young nun (Hilary Reynolds) who's had a baby which she shouldn't have done. The Mother Superior (H010 Blackman) proves more wicked than Lady Macbeth. The play is artless, ignorant tosh.