12 FEBRUARY 1972, Page 21


The quick and the dead

Kenneth Hurren

IL. °lir major theatrical giants unveiled ii'o'Ir first exhibits of 1972 last week. The har Shakespeare Company, which has Ed Iv mixed luck with earlier plays by iavnard Albee, remained loyal to its irite American and presented his tetiest, All n r -ver, at the Aldwych, with the a.kide„respect appropriate to distinction deceased, an ambiguity not quite thirr,isarirling as it is discerning — but first Old6,8, first. The National Theatre, at the Which Jic, served a little domestic brew of lodePerhaps reflecting on all their iheralered dreamboats of recent seasons ...... Zie krhOPed no more than that we might be toet-l'd bY its presumption. The amusethe , as it happens, is in direct ratio to TnPrestiMption, which is huge. the'ill Stoppard, whose play Jumpers is the sPrightly item at hand, presumes upon to :hid --in itself a novel enough notion infrne aPon in the context of farce — sorn8ets himself therein to play hob with ha: Of the most earnest questions that qoii; teased philosophers and logicians generi,,tite ages. It has been my luckless inteCi:' experience that plays with the iLtilial pretensions — at least since lioteri-o'llier days of the late Shaw i— are ti4 , usly limp in humour, going n as a atithTor the sort of primitive jokes that loni,'Drs aiming at earthier audiences have hks° 4go discarded, but Stoppard clearly Weikh11,1? Patience with the idea that viitTqless and wit are incompatible. His tha, dideed, is generally on so high a level reertitir'e the occasional lapses are quite e .asehably dismaying. I'm sure h thai`ts already a passing reference to jests 1?ds Pblagued an osteopath whose name descii'ones; and even his whimsical cdrileieevnpatitoie rinof a vague Political event — al of coup d'etat and genera illiitele," --as a "coup des ballots" is not osilai UP to the general scratch. His more rnor-, humorous method is considerably theos0Phisticated, hanging mathematical PkradrY, Orl philosophical assumption and on postulate, in hilarious sequence tho,j,at Pause, and with a final flick of tiod'-`13glc, setting the whole gay constructliob813inhing: a perfect, comic, verbal ,,ile. Qeiri 144 e°11e sooner or later was bound to debiiii a theatrical examination of the °II ti;atiirig influence of the moon landings SR -ogical concepts — not to mention 'Itop lyrics and it is a relief that keit7ard has got in ahead of more oversibtas talents. It would be a grotesque then.1811hplification to call this the whole kid the c't his play, but that leap into space consequential somersaulting reviL4c4 tsoln,,arnong orthodox philosophers — 4114e-h:nention lyricists — provide a handy Pad for his engaging flights of fancy. Most of them are in the hands, or rather the mouth, of a somewhat frenzied professor of moral philosophy named George Moore — no kin, as they say, to the author of the Principia Ethica — who spends the greater part of the play composing and dictating a paper in which he wrestles with the question of the existence of God (" to use the theological sobriquet ") and a dozen or so subordinate questions that flow from that one. His major difficulty is in the matter of proofs ("I don't claim to know that God exists, I only claim that he does so without my knowing it "), and in getting around the absurdity of a world without beginning, considered in relation to its more acceptable corollary in the infinite, a world without end. Stoppard's view seems to be that philosophy is as useful in solving the mysteries of the universe as shouting down a well. The play, however, ends on a note of qualified optimism. Among its minor proofs is that of being the exception to Thurber's rule, "All plays set in penthouses are terrible." (I know that makes two Thurber quotations; the mood of the play somehow encourages them.) The scene here is the sort of luxury penthouse not usually occupied by professors of moral philosophy, but George has the advantage of being married to a star of musical comedy (recently retired) and they are very comfortably set up. Other advantages of the marriage have not lately been coming George's way, his wife, Dottie, once a consummate artist, having retired from consummation and artistry more or less simultaneously (possibly because of the sudden meaninglessness of romantic songs involving the moon), and another trouble about to beset him is the murder in his home of a rival philosopher. Stoppard somehow contrives to juxtapose the murder inquiry and the metaphysical investigation throughout most of the play as well as making room for the Jumpers of the title, who is and are both the vice chancellor of George's university and a troupe of performing gymnasts comprising most of the faculty.

Many an inspired moment illuminates the play, but I think the most impressive is a climactic one which I cannot fairly detail. It is a moment at which George is suddenly and unexpectedly in the position of a man who, on finding the broken pieces of one carelessly dropped metaphorical contact lens, steps backward and crushes the other, and is left sightless, eyeless in Gaza. The exact balance of comedy and anguish is beautifully held by Michael Hordern who, throughout, brings an immensity of skill and feeling — and an astonishing memory — to the verbal complexities of the role. Partnering him, Diana Rigg, as well as being a generously displayed pictorial asset, copes adroitly with the dilemmas of Dottie; Graham Crowden, David Ryall, Paul Curran and Anna Carteret aid and abet splendidly; and Peter Wood's crisp direction enhances the pleasures of what is as genial and ingenious a comedy as we've had for years. Seeing it, I fear, made the Albee play seem in retrospect even paler than it had looked a couple of nights previously. All Over has, to be sure, a cold grace, a sort of embalmed elegance, but while these might be accepted as compliments by a mortician, I doubt whether they represent qualities a playgoer is seeking terribly eagerly. The play is the prolonged death scene of some rich and notable American, with one foot already in the grave and the other on the banana peel. As he quietly expires in a four-poster, his wife, mistress, son, daughter and best friend sit around raking over the ashes of old ires, and contemplating the emptiness that will remain to them when they have settled the last question of whether worms or flames are to claim him.

They are people so trivial as to be themselves virtually dead, and it is no fun watching them taking up airspace. I had been told that the play has one moment that is at least evocative of passion, and I was somehow unsurprised to find that it comes when the mistress describes the body of a boy with whom she shared a brief sexual idyll at the age of fifteen. For the rest there are a few globules of rather arctic wit afloat on the still surface; a fastidiousness of syntax that I admire on the page and am not unenthusiastic about on the stage; very fine performances from Peggy Ashcroft, Angela Lansbury and Sebastian Shaw; ineffectual because unsuitable attempts by Sheila Hancock to bring the daughter to life by hysteria; and carefully portentous direction by Peter Hall. The Albee who explored affecting human relationships so incisively in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and A Delicate Balance can evidently be posted missing, believed dead.