20 DECEMBER 1963, Page 14

Producers in the Pulpit


The Recruiting Officer. (National Theatre.)— The Comedy of Errors. (Aldwych.) — Happy Days. (Theatre Royal, Stratford, E.) STYLE is what The Re- cruiting Officer needs. It is a lively, highly comic work, and more compact than anything of its time except the best of Con- greve. Yet with something so mannered, and in a language both slangy and formalised— almost a dialect—so that it is all the harder to catch the hidden meanings and word-plays, soft or slovenly staging will fix us in our seats with a grin and the stock response 'Restoration Comedy' while we wait for the next enlivening episode. Brecht chose to counteract this by re- writing the play, making it into something it is not by assuming that its action arbitrarily suited other circumstances. Though this was not some- thing one could safely have predicted, the pro- ducer at the National Theatre, William Gaskill, has fortunately seen no reason 'to put on an English translation of a German adaptation of a perfectly good English play.'

Yet there are concessions. Mr. Gaskill has been unable to resist showing Farquhar's 'pro- gressiveness,' and in the so-called comedy of manners he has discovered a social moral. This is merely to apply contemporary preoccupations to a work which was conceived quite outside them, something which is anyhow a dull tautology, because we have no alternative, since nobody is reviving 1706. The two countrymen who are pressed into the army were clowns, not victims to Farquhar, and the justices' bench was a riotous satire and not a revelation of military and legal iniquity hand-in-hand.

Mr. Gaskill shows us how simply the comedy can run by permitting the scenes of conversa- tion to speak for themselves, with characters gliding in and out as for a minuet. This is what we expect from Farquhar and what we ought to get, and if a different, more modern moral is to be drawn, then a different play must be written or else the present work of art will be belittled by being used rather like a poster, which will save us the trouble of thinking out exactly why a work of art and its interpretation are not the same. It would require a producer with an original mind to make something of Farquhar's use of the word 'Romantic,' for in- stance, which is an innate feature of the play.

A very successful coup opens the performance when a frowsty, pre-curtain set revolves upon itself to break up into a cheerful eighteenth- century market place, allowing great flexibility of entry and space for various drops. This set by Rene Allio and the hard consistent lighting by Richard Pilbrow are responsible for the good effects of gaiety and colour. The rest is acting. As Captain Brazen, the braggart rake-hell, Laurence Olivier breaks through the produc- tion. Like all things so good that one comes to take them for granted, Olivier's skill appears a dependable, but here it is real virtuosity. All decked out with ribbons and tokens, he is a supreme caricature, unrestrained and abundant, and so sure of every note that he is never a parody. He has invented several new muscular twitches in his cheeks and contrives to screw his eyes up shortsightedly and provokingly like a bold mouse. It is not just mannerism, however, which fits him for this genre, but a way of rounding his sentences, and finishing his sen- tences with correct emphasis, as if he were play- ing a harpsichord. This modulation is exactly the style required to enhance the comedy.

Max Adrian has it too. The part of Justice Balance is rather cruder and not just less flam- boyant, but Max Adrian brings out an authen- ticity and a fullness which are almost pedantic and which make a far sharper comment than anything the production can contrive. This is all one needs to know about justices of the peace, and none of the marshalling of prisoners in the courtroom (where it says mob in the text, by the way) will add to it.

Robert Stephens is the decent Captain Plume who gives up his military career for the girl he loves. All men are honest underneath, seems to be the maxim, but with most of them you have to go a long way down. Robert Stephens shows an unusual turn for forthright comedy; he can provoke the hectoring laugh which underlies so much of English humour. One measure of his increasing stature these days is that he looks phy- sically bigger with each new part. Only Maggie Smith leaves it to her lines to try their luc without her help. Perhaps she is tired, for he flair was missing and she relics for her chic effect on a stock device of hers, to slur the end of the sentences glissando, while raising he voice as if everything were the one big throw away it becomes.

The extent to which ours is a producers' an not an actors' theatre is demonstrated ver nicely by the much-praised Comedy of Errors This opens with a truly abominable fake-balleti• gag, utterly irrelevant to the play, time-consum ing and incidentally trite, the kind of thin college dramatic societies exist to prune. Th rest of the production is just as tricksy-pixy. sometimes it is quite funny, sometimes successful as with the improvised commedia dell' arte, but all this is only producer's show-off. It blots out the play, and worse, the actors, and one comes to them having dodged the antics, as at the end of an obstacle course, only to double back over the circuit again.

One actor's play which should resist the most obstinate producer is Happy Days. It may be that • it is a great expression of natural felicity, but if so, it is unnecessarily vacuous. Choosing animal rather than vegetable. I preferred Brenda Bruce at the Royal Court to Marie Kean, who is now at Stratford East. Miss Kean takes her plight skittishly and whimsically. As with Beckett, the play improves on further hearing.