Wednesday, June 18, 2008
The Chalk Garden at the Donmar
Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden is a deceptive thing. In its opening minutes at least, it feels highly familiar; it has a whiff of regional rep about it, crisp and English and scented with crème de menthe, but beneath this gentle surface, dark things swirl like eels underwater.
Miss Madrigal sits facing away from the audience, straight-backed and silent in her blue suit. This taciturn woman has answered an advert for a governess placed by the mistress of the house, Mrs St Maugham; she turns out to be the only serious contender, the other applicants having turned up only to have a nose around the house, to fill their days.
Miss Madrigal enters a strange world. There are three generations of women in the family, all troubled. The elderly Mrs St Maugham has a touch of the dragon about her, an echo of Lady Bracknell; even at the time of writing she was very much a woman from a previous age, a relic in blue taffeta. Her daughter Olivia is absent, overseas, having remarried after the death of her husband, so Mrs St Maugham has been left in charge of the young granddaughter, Laurel, a spirited sixteen year old prone to setting fire to things and fond of screaming, a girl “in love with her own misfortune,” as Miss Madrigal astutely points out.
Both the play and the household are dominated by women. The only male presence is that of Maitland the manservant, nerves worn down to the nub, who frequently but impotently threatens to hand in his notice. He served five years in prison as a conscientious objector and has developed a fascination with trials and murder cases that Laurel shares with him. They are in thrall to an unseen ancient butler Pinkbell, who, though confined to bed, occasionally dials down to the main house, like a crabby, short-tempered god to make his displeasure felt on various matters, mainly pertaining to the garden. The house is built on chalk and, though much has been planted, little will flourish in the hostile soil.
Miss Madrigal slides with ease into this eccentric world, weighted with her own ways and tendencies, burdened with a murky past that Laurel is determined to get to the bottom of; to the inquisitive young girl with a taste for the macabre, this odd companion of hers, who she affectionately calls the ‘boss’, is a mystery waiting to be unpicked. But it takes the return of Laurel’s mother Olivia and the arrival of a judge with whom Mrs St Maugham has long been friends, for Miss Madrigal's secrets to come to the surface.
Bagnold’s play debuted on Broadway in 1955 and was staged in London the following year where, despite its country house setting, even Kenneth Tynan was impressed. This may be because of its undercurrent of melancholy and madness, a constant presence beneath the quick, witty comic dialogue. Michael Grandage’s excellently judged revival brings all this out. It is a beautifully staged and sublimely acted production. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as the cryptic Miss Madrigal, stoic, sensible, but not without emotion – indeed she forges quite a bond with the young girl – and is very receptive to her environment; there is a sense of pain in her past but she keeps it under a lid.
Margaret Tyzack is equally brilliant as the formidable Mrs St Maugham. Her timing is immaculate and her way with an icy put down or comic line is exemplary. (“One is not at one’s best through mahogany,” she observes after declining to hold a conversation through a closed door). There is also more than a touch of cruelty under all the lace and pearls, a capacity to hurt, she does not like being challenged and can be quite cutting in her comments.
The young Felicity Jones, as Laurel, also impresses, the picture of precociousness and youthful passion, she is both a older than her years and yet still a child in need of love and affection. Peter McKintosh’s detailed summer-house set with its grey, rain-smeared windows gives the production a strong sense of time and place.
As a whole, the production rarely puts a foot wrong. While it brings forth the wit and sparkle of Bagnold’s writing and revels in each finely-honed line, it also finds a greater resonance in the play, these lost people find hope and happiness – or the capacity for it – in one another and, the audience too, is left moved and uplifted by the end.
Review transplanted, once again, from musicOMH.com due to lack of time and an overflow of Other Things. I will just mention the minor kerfuffle that occurred just before the start of the play, when a member of the audience had to be dissuaded from actually sitting on the stage itself - I think she was trying to get a better view of things. When she was informed that people, as a rule, tended to sit in their seats and not on the stage, she looked rather peeved and, I noted, did not return after the interval.