23 AUGUST 1975, Page 27


Make mine chop suey

Kenneth Hurren

Fanshen! by David Hare, from the book by William Hinton (Hampstead Theatre Club) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard (Criterion) The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (Stratfordupon-Avon) No, honestly, I mean .. . don't go on about it no, really ... I mean. aw, shucks . . some of us just have this, this sense of, well, duty, devotion if you like ... we just grit our teeth and ... really it wasn't anything ...

Actually, it was, and I should not want to go through it again, but so many of my confreres of an earnest cast were so enthusiastic about Fanshen! when it was lately at the ICA that I felt it would be gravely remiss of me — and not a little chicken — to stay away from it on its transfer to the Hampstead Theatre Club last week. I read the book, too, over 700 pages of 9 on 10 Point, plus appendices (Pelican £1.10). It has the same title as David Hare's play, except for the exclamation mark which, I'm sorry to say, is about the limit of what might be called the dramatisation. 'Fanshen' is a word from the new vocabulary of the Chinese revolution meaning to turn over' or, as Hinton put it in an introductory note, "to throw off the landlord yoke ... to throw off superstition and study science ... to establish equality between the sexes, to do away with appointed village magistrates and replace them with elected councils ... to enter a new world." It is quite a word, and no wonder Hare gave it an exclamation mark. It puts the whole book, and the whole play, in a nutshell — and nutshells, I could not help feeling as the night dragged on, were what Fanshen! could certainly do with.

Hare does his best. Every now and then, when some humdrum session of the party or a peasants' association or an 'elected council' threatens, in a famdias phrase, to impinge upon eternity, he gives us a merciful narrator who steps forward to say, "They talked for six hours" (or "eight hours" or "a day," as the case may have been, and no one could have any doubt of it), and they all get up, pick up their little bamboo camp-stools and troop off the stage. Only to be back again, moments later, to discuss another detail of the abolition of feudalism or some supplementary measure in the establishment of the new order, or just to 'classify' and 'evaluate:

The play consists almost entirely of these meetings, and it is impossible to escape the feeling that it is all terribly worthy and desperately important; and most of all that it is impossible to escape. "Think of Clause Sixteen!" some chairman barked peremptorily and I coloured with guilt, being unable to remember what Clause Sixteen was, though I would gladly have thought of it, whatever it may be, for it couldn't have been more paralysing to contemplate than the proceedings on the stage. It is nowhere to go for a laugh. It might have been, given the unlikely conversational style that Hinton and Hare have visited on their fanshening peasants, but that would require a more responsively irreverent audience than the one I was sitting among, and of whom Mrs Dutt Pauker would have been justly proud.

It is directed by William Gaskill and Max Stafford-Clark (I'm not sure how two people direct a play, but it seems an appropriately collectivist arrangement), and the cast of nine, who have twenty-seven parts distributed among them, are splendid. They don't look Chinese, of course, and they don't look like tillers of the soil, either, but they do look jolly committed, which is probably exactly what Gaskill and Stafford-Clark had demanded of them.

Even so, since almost nothing of what they were up to, however worthily instructive, fell within my expectations of the theatrical experience, I'm afraid they blighted a week that was otherwise rather agreeable. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, first produced professionally by the National Theatre eight years ago, is worth a second look from anybody and I was diverted all over again by his idea of giving three-dimensional substance to the shadowy outlines of those two attendant lords whom Shakespeare used only, as T. S. Eliot had it, "to swell a progress, start a scene or two." Stoppard's play is a look at Hamlet through' their eyes, as they pass the time, between their entrances, knowing nothing of themselves apart from what they may glean from the occasional, puzzling, overheard

remark. They discuss with engaging perplexity the confusing goings-on at the Danish court, and otherwise amuse themselves with word-games or in spinning coins that always come down heads in a world where the laws of probability do not apply and where they have neither a choice nor a chance. Christopher Timothy and Richard O'Callaghan, in Bernard Goss's new production, play them with proper stylishness and bafflement, and Philip Locke is also strikingly good as the Player King, with whom R. and G. are allowed some philosophical chat when he, too, is off-stage.

There was an opportunity for a second look, too, at Terry Hands's 1968 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor which, in view of the lapse of time, has a remarkable number of the same players — including, blessedly, Ian Richardson repeating his superbly realised comic performance as the apoplectically jealous Ford. Brewster Mason, uninhibited by his experience of playing Falstaff in the 'Henry' sequence, has a high old time as the genially concupiscent and pompous knight, and Brenda Bruce and Barbara Leigh-Hunt, as the ladies of the title, are so merry as to verge upon the hysterical. The play is probably nobody's favourite, but it is given here with brisk gusto, and the imposition of an astonishing number of double entendres upon a relatively innocent text (which might well add pages to the next edition of Shakespeare's Bawdy) is more or less permissible in the summer romp it has become.