Friday, February 3, 2012

Look Back in Anger: Osborne's Primal Scream

I heart their poster art.
Sam Gold's revival of Look Back In Anger feels relevant and modern, finding a contemporary angle on a difficult historic piece.  A fascinating revival that succeeds in parts and fails in others, it remains controversial but lacks a certain spark and passion.

John Osborne's famous "Angry Young Man" play from 1956 is about a an abusive marriage between Jimmy Porter, an educated, working class man, and Alison, his middle class wife who are now living in squalor in a tiny attic apartment along with, Cliff, an uneducated Welsh working-class bloke.  Alison's middle-class friend Helena comes to town and her presence upends the unsteady balance of the trio. 

The play shattered the traditions of English stage at the time by portraying the working class and young people and their problems (and an ironing board--the horror).  Apparently, Osborne wrote the semi-autobiographical play in three weeks out of anger that his wife might be having an affair with their dentist.  The material is incredibly challenging since the female characters are underwritten and in some ways just a foil for Jimmy to spout his speeches about what's wrong with England and society.  Jimmy is a difficult character.  He can be completely despicable so understanding why one would be attracted to him is another uphill battle.

This production succeeds on some fronts and fails on others.  Gold has staged the entire show outside the proscenium on a five foot wide sliver of the stage.  The actors have no where to go and in fact when they are "offstage" they are merely standing to the side still visible to the audience.  The claustrophobia of the relationships and characters is well communicated through this staging to the audience.  The filth and squalor are tangible. There is also food thrown around and you can see how disgusting the actors feet are as they walk around.  The actors are in vary stages of undress throughout the play and this also forces the audience into an intense level of intimacy.

Some audience members left at intermission.  I think the play produces a great deal of discomfort in the audience--which frankly I quite like.  I heard many grumblings at the performance I attended ("What a jerk."  "How could she be married to him?").  You cannot help but feel a party to these dysfunctional relationships with the proximity and intimacy of the staging.  Some people took this quite personally.

I expected the play to feel a bit dated but somehow through the edits Gold made he found a strong resonant core to the material that felt contemporary.  Like The Motherfucker with the Hat, it depicts a couple in a destructive relationship (though without the comic relief present in that play).  No matter how much time has passed since the play was written that remains a fascinating story--why these people came together, what keeps them together, what is tearing them apart.  The class issues are apparent, and maybe not as powerful today as they were then to that audience, but it is enough to give context to Jimmy's desire and yet loathing for Alison and Alison's fall from grace in succumbing to Jimmy. 

Despite helpful edits, smart direction and an unusual staging, ultimately, I think the casting is what keeps this from being a great revival and making it merely an interesting one.  The actresses working with underwritten roles do incredible work to find the narrative drive and emotional impulses that keep them in difficult, abusive relationships.  Sarah Goldberg is luminous to watch and manages to convey a great deal without dialogue.  Charlotte Parry does a great job creating a haughty Helena in the first phase of her character's development but it is hard to believe her character's turnaround--though I think that remains a product of the writing.

The biggest challenge was Matthew Rhys.  He did not manage to bring the sexual charisma that the role of Jimmy Porter requires.  He is England's version of an educated Stanley Kowalski.  To understand the attraction or allure or magnetic charge he has over his wife, I think Jimmy Porter must be riveting and magnetic on stage.  You have to believe someone would feel powerlessly compelled to sleep with this man despite all her misgivings and background because he is basically trying to fuck the middle-class by literally and actually fucking a member of the middle-class. 

Rhys is articulate and sharp.  His speeches and his rage are well-delivered and modulated but despite being very handsome did not tap into the rawness I thought the role calls for.  He had the anger but not the passion.  I think Jimmy Porter needs both to be successful.  Alison has to be powerless to resist him (I mean pipe down feminism it's 1956 and also let's be honest if Michael Fassbender came along and asked you to sleep with him would you really say no?  That's the kind of powerlessness I am talking about.  Pure lust and desire pushing aside what is right, what is proper, and what would be a healthy relationship.)  I had read that Cillian Murphy played Jimmy when they were doing reading of the play.  After seeing him in Misterman, I believe he could have pulled it off.  I just felt like Rhys kept Jimmy's emotional tsunami at arm's length and perhaps another actor could have let it loose.  Rhys felt too formal and buttoned-up.

Adam Driver gives a great physical performance as Cliff.  He's like an over-grown puppy playing off both Jimmy and Alison.   But I struggled with his accent.  It was supposed to be Welsh but it did not sound that Welsh to me (Granted, my basis for Welsh accents is Gavin & Stacey and the three You Tube videos I just watched where people demonstrate a variety of Welsh accents and still his accent does not seem to be on the right spectrum--though it would appear Mr. Isherwood thought it was fine.). 

It's an audacious interpretation of the play even if it doesn't hit all the marks.  I'm glad they revived it even if it is unpleasant and not always enjoyable to watch.  It's such a seminal piece of theater and this production tries very hard to live up to that history.

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