31 JULY 1959, Page 12


Double Bluffing

By ALAN BRIEN The Ring of Truth. (Savoy.) —Eleven Men Dead At Hola Camp. (Royal Court.) The Ring of Truth is a bright, brave, half-success- ful attempt at an Ibsen comedy. It could just as easily be called The Ring of Falsehood. The loss of a trivial piece of jewellery (trivial, that is, to a man about to earn £7,000 a year) gradually disintegrates a happy middle-class family. The husband's directorship is threatened. The wife's fidelity is questioned. The servants begin to leave. The mother-in-law moves in. The police produce inaccurate, but in- genious and plausible, explanations for the loss which cast suspicion on one member of the household after another. Says the wife: 'there's no way out—like a Greek tragedy'. All this is lbsenish enough and the old Norwegian rep producer could not have laid the booby-traps more cunningly under the most innocent domestic props. Wynyard Browne knows well how to make a tea-cup explode, how to transform an insurance inspector into a sub-agent of Nemesis, how to show an irritable distrust of appearances being passed around a family like a cold in the head. Whenever the chain of cause and effect seems about to fray, Mr. Browne anticipates our disbelief and neutralises our doubt by placing our unspoken objections in the mouths of the characters on stage. He succeeds in the double bluff—we begin to believe that these things really are happening just because the characters do not.

These characters are deliberately the stock caricatures of country-house farce, though cleverly repainted in realistic contemporary style. The husband is the usual amiable young fogey, a company director—but also a mathematician. The almost-lover is the familiar middle-brow version of the high-brow in duffel coat and beard—but no longer a scientific Marxist, instead a provincial mystic a /a Colin Wilson. The inevitable detective has abandoned the ingratiating public-school deference of the Agatha Christie days and become a sinister Dogberry whose uniform gives power to his shrewd, half-educated innuendoes. Wynyard Browne has added

a Shavian twist to each cliché and his dialogue bristles with good remarks. The trouble is that where he is most convincing he is least funny, and where he is most entertaining he is least believable. When- ever he scratches the surface of a character, he reveals the solid wood beneath the paint. His people are eventually just not interesting enough to be worth our concern. The faults of The Ring of Truth are not accidental—they are the result of trying to put an aeroplane engine into a vintage car. The play is blurred by being caught in the overlap between two schools of playwriting.

It is not exactly helped by Frith Banbury's direction, which manages to have speed without pace. The first act needs sym- pathetic, naturalistic playing but it is whizzed along like a conventional, gag-a- second matinee comedy. The second act . needs to leap from comic idea to comic idea like a chamois but it lumbers from one noisy emotional outburst to another like an armadillo. It is almost as if Mr. Banbury were determined to emphasise the incongruity of the author's two intentions rather than to conceal it. Most of the cast over-act in a style which would be brilliantly appropriate in a Lonsdale romp and reap that individual exit-line round of applause which is always the sign of a performance a couple of sizes too big for its material. John Slater, for instance, with his black- eyed, rhino-nosed mask sniffing out upper-class debauchery, is a comic and frightening portrait of a bully-boy copper. But he is acting—visibly and unmistakably —while David Tomlinson as the husband is being and existing. When Mr. Tomlinson, logically determined that what is lost can always be found, intellectually convinced that he could not be cuckolded, suddenly flares into a childish rage at his mother's lady-like whinings and whinnyings, then we see a glimpse of Method-acting at its rare best and appreciate for a moment what Mr. Browne might have made of his play if it had all been acted and written at that level. Arthur Lowe, as the insurance man who starts the ball of lies rolling, is another impeccably observed, precisely incarnated performance which keeps just inside the limits of realism. The Ring of Truth is an irritating, unpredictable, rarely boring piece of theatremanship which can be recommended for anyone in search of light entertainment without second-rato whimsy and second-hand philistinism.

Eleven Men Dead At Hola Camp, an improvisation staged for one Sunday night only, shows the Royal Court in its most militant, inept, radical, ambitious and pretentious mood. The idea was to gather together ten coloured actors and encourage them to ad-lib some dramatic scenes freely based on the known facts about Hola. Two interlocutors, one black and one white, sitting at either side of the stage, supplied explanatory links and basic information. Two producers, both white bwanas, took turns at sergeant-majoring the squad of Negro volunteers. The actors had previously rehearsed in two separate groups and it was never clear quite how much of the dialogue was pencilled in and how much was produced on the spur of the moment. But there was a Kikuyu creation myth, a Mau Mau ritual, a condemned cell cross-talk, a briefing of the camp guards by a sadist and then by a liberal, a demonstration of how to beat reluctant prisoners, and various assorted death scenes. The experiment was not a success— it emphasised that actors have no natural talent for inventing phrases and situations, and that producers have no natural talent for self-confidence and self-expression on stage. (And surely isn't it about time that critics stopped parroting that inverse racialism which asserts that black skins have more instinctive talent for acting than white skins?) The actors, at least, were never em- barrassed or embarrassing. With intelli- gence, energy and great good humour, they attempted the tasks they were set. Sometimes they were extremely effective— as in the pep-talk on scientific man- handling. Sometimes they were self- consciously melodramatic in the fashion of 'B' feature films—as in the initiation of a Mau Mau convert. Most of the time they were jocularly satirical and jovially farcical in a way that no white actor would dare be on the subject of African lynch-law. When they were pretending to be British experts discussing 'rehabilitation', one mused thoughtfully, 'Could we not borrow some thumb-screws from the Tower of London?' They even sent up each other's big moments with hilarious effect. But almost never did their dramatisation of the squalid shame of Hola, and the pitiful pomposity of Its apologists in Parliament, have an impact equal to a simple reading of Hansard. (Even here the producers muffed their job. The readings were far too confused and involved and edited to give a clear picture of the sequence of events to anyone who had not studied the evidence beforehand. Some of the excerpts were naively chosen— no one who has ever attended an assize court in the British backwoods should be unduly shocked by the revelation that Mau Mau initiates have intercourse with a sheep, for example.) I cannot see why the producers Keith Johnstone and William Gaskill, who provided unintentionally funny light relief by squabbling damply on stage between scenes, should have thought that their improvisation would succeed. Why should it be imagined that ten talented young actors from different ends of the earth should know by instinct how to become Mau Mau diehards simply because their faces are different shades of coffee instead of different shades of pink? And if, because of their experience of some kinds of colour prejudice, they could think themselves into African brains, why should it then be expected that they should be able to improvise dialogue for the white men who bash those African brains? This kind of public dramatic exercise is harder, not easier, than reading a part. It is almost bound to be much less theatrically effective than even a third-rate propaganda tract from the Unity Theatre.

Eleven Men Dead At Hola Camp was neither good rhetoric nor good theatre. But if it sent the audience home to study the facts, it will have been worthwhile. And if it sent the producers home re- convinced that acting discipline and writing economy are the heart of drama, then it will also have been worth while. The only way in which such an evening could have produced profitable improvisations would have been to allow the actors to react to the facts of Hola within the framework of their own lives—whether in Jamaica, or Liver- pool, or Notting Hill Gate, or Kenya. There is no magic in acting. No actor can produce a true performance unless he has appreciated the truth he is to embody. And in improvising, there should be no half-measures. If the lively group of young coloured men at the Royal Court had been set free to say 'Yes, we have no bwanas' and act for themselves, then the emotions at least would all have been real and natural. .