Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mrs Affleck at the National

It began with the rain. As a fine mist of moisture fell across the Cottesloe stage, the coughing started. Nothing out of the ordinary at first – par for the course at the National – but then it grew louder and louder until the scene was awash with coughing, a cacophony of coughing, a cacoughany, if you will.

It’s a shame, as this scene was one of the more striking in the production, this gentle mist heightening the emotional content of this strangely unaffecting play. Despite centring on the death of a child it was difficult to give a damn about these people.

Samuel Adamson has taken Ibsen’s late play, Little Eyolf, and transplanted it to a Kentish coastal town in 1950’s Britain. We know it is the 1950s because there are superbly be-quiffed Teddy boys strutting around, numerous references to the end of rationing and the recent arrival of immigrants from Jamaica, and the women wear dresses that wouldn’t look out of place in a film by Douglas Sirk (Claire Skinner wears a stunning turquoise shirt dress in the first act). But despite such details, this act of relocation feels forced and the play sits uneasily in its new surroundings.

At the start of the play, Alfred Affleck has just returned from a trip to the Highlands, a trip he undertook ostensibly to complete a book he had been working on. During his stay, he has come to the decision to abandon his book and focus his attentions on their son, Oliver, a bright young boy disabled after an accident when he was a baby. Rita is affronted by this announcement, for she views her son as a barrier to her husband’s affections and, because he was injured while they were making love, the boy’s disability provides a constant reminder of the passion she feels she has lost.

Adamson (who also adapted Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community for the National) takes a good long time establishing this dysfunctional set up. Indeed the moment with the most action in this somewhat plodding play takes place during the interval when a team of head-set wearing techies rush out, armed with drills and lifts and things, to dismantle the kitchen set of the first act and replace it with the sea front cafĂ© of the second.

The production does pick up a bit after the interval. Alfred, deep in grief is torn between his wife and the affections of his half-sister Audrey, while Rita is catapulted into an abyss of self-questioning. Despite all the emotional turmoil on display the chap next to me was checking his watch at three minute intervals come the last half hour. It doesn’t help that the production is rather awkwardly staged. Though the performance space extends forwards, with the audience arranged around three sides, much of the action takes place at one end of the set, giving neck ache to those sitting side on. A friend of mine just qualified as an osteopath, I am definitely bringing her with me if the National retain this configuration for their next Cottesloe production.

Though Marianne Elliott has directed some of the National's most vibrant productions (War Horse and Saint Joan among them), this is a static and chilly thing. She does at least draw out committed performances from her cast. Naomi Frederick makes Audrey plausibly warm, the only really likeable person in the thing, while the rich voiced Angus Wright gives Alfred a measure of charisma. Claire Skinner, in the title role, does what she can with the character as written, but her plight fails to involve the audience; I ended up wishing she’d just be quiet.

At the start of the evening, on my way in to take my seat, I passed a table laden with props for the night. A battered paperback, a football, some flowers - and a bottle of sherry. With hindsight I should have taken a swig.

No comments: