Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Afterlife at the National

It was a surprisingly tough call. I was sitting with the West End Whingers (and honorary Whinger Graham) outside the National during the interval of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife. Should we stay put, in the sun with our bottle of red, or venture back inside? The first half had not been promising at all. Grand but rather empty, hitting the audience over the head with its cleverness. But we, or at least I, felt a need to see whether it would take flight after the interval, whether the plays potentially fascinating themes would actually start to, well, fascinate. So we (after polishing off the wine with practiced ease) left our sunny spot on the terrace and plunged back in.

Mistake. Definite mistake.

Indeed there was a distinct lack of taking off in the second half, a distinct lack of anything much happening that one could actually care about. This was a play of Ideas rather than one that gave much weight to things like character and pacing and so forth. And these Ideas were, in turn, rather bluntly flung about without really cohering in any satisfying fashion. Roger Allam played Max Reinhardt, the Austrian theatre impresario who staged morality plays at Salzburg Festival. Reinhardt was fascinated with the interweaving of art and life and therefore Frayn presents Reinhardt’s life as a morality play with Allam as Everyman. So we have a black-caped and skull-masked figure of death stalking the stage and much speaking in verse. (“Have they learned nothing from Fram” the Whingers asked). While Reinhardt career flounders under the Nazis and he is forced to flee to the United States, his finances decimated, living first in Los Angles with the mistress he eventually married and then finally moving to New York where Death, inevitably catches up with him. Still he achieves an afterlife of a kind through his work.

But the play remained wrapped in a thick shield of its own making, impenetrable. Clearly there is no one at the National who is able to say to Frayn, I see what you’re trying to do here Michael, but isn’t it a bit dull? A bit laboured? Wouldn’t a little burst of Climb Every Mountain pick things right up? The set was big and grand and got across the opulence and excess of Reinhardt’s lifestyle but, in terms of pacing, it was like wading through toffee, a real slog with little reward at its end. It seemed the antithesis of the The Pitman Painters, a play that managed to be about Things, to deal in Ideas, and yet also to entertain, to move, to uplift its audience. This missed the mark on all counts. You know there’s a problem when you start being distracted by finger marks on windows (God, I am turning into my mother) or when the most positive comment you appear to have made in your notebook is ‘a lovely cloche hat.’

Selina Griffiths was very good as Reinhardt’s ever loyal assistant, but Allam was nowhere near as he strong as he could be, as he has been in the past. And, OK, there were a clutch of good moments, including a scene where Reinhardt prepares to give a lavish dinner party, choreographing the waiting staff as he would the actors in one of his productions, but these were few and very, very far between.

Afterwards, our party of four moved swiftly away from the National, the source of our pain, and set about a couple of bottles of Rioja outside the BFI South Bank, (the NFT as was) and, eventually, the Bad Thing was forgotten – along with much else I suspect.