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Look Back In Anger

Photo by John Marmaras

Red Line Productions present, LOOK BACK IN ANGER by John Osborne, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomoolooo, 16 August – 10 September. Belvoir St Theatre season from 13 September – 17 September.

Sixty years ago, in May 1956, LOOK BACK IN ANGER  by John Osborne, was presented by The English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. It has been touted by many that it was the play that ‘revolutionised’ the English theatre scene of its time and was the major watershed for what followed. Contextually, along with the usual classic revivals, the contemporary writers that dominated the scene, before Osborne’s play, were writers such as Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward, Christopher Fry, Emlyn Williams, William Douglas-Home and American T.S. Eliot. All flourishing under the auspices of businessmen like the West End entrepreneur, Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont. The management that Osborne famously described as the eminence lavande whose ‘Binkiedom’ was ‘the most powerful of the unacceptable faeces of theatrical capitalism.’ Beaumont, it was, that presented work that, in the words of Peter Brook, was ‘a reaching back to the memory of lost grace.’ Otherwise the European writers: Anouilh, Giraudoux along with Cocteau, Camus, Sartre and latterly Genet, Ionesco and Beckett were making a contemporary mark. (WAITING FOR GODOT, had had a production in a small theatre in London in 1955.)

The English critic, Kenneth Tynan, wrote in 1954:

We need plays about cabmen and demigods, plays about warriors, politicians and grocers … I counsel aggression because as a critic, I had rather be a war correspondent than a necrologist.

It seems he had had enough of the defining English style in the theatre: emotional understatement, a dry reserve worn lightly, of a national temperament of restraint, and of plays that did not reflect the life of the majority, of the economically depressed, of the young, of a country rebuilding itself after the contingencies of war that had only moved from rationing its food in July of 1954, of a country whose Empire was diminishing in world status to ‘simply’ become a Commonwealth.

John Osborne, working as a struggling actor in provincial repertory, wrote in 1953:

The English Theatre isn’t merely dying, it’s being buried alive to the rattle of Aunt Edna’s knitting needles.

The famous Aunt Edna introduced to the world by Rattigan, as the  nice respectable, middle class, middle-aged maiden lady with time on her hands and money to help her pass it, who found any playwright who displeased her as ‘utterly lost.’

In John Osborne and the arrival of LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Tynan, if not Aunt Edna, found  the playwright that he had been waiting for:

I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see LOOK BACK IN ANGER. It is the best young play of its decade.

This singular endorsement thrust the production of this play into the limelight of controversy and a ‘must see.’ (Even with the proviso that it was ‘the best young play of the decade’.) Whatever the content, the working class setting (an ironing board on stage, apparently, drew gasps of ‘shock’) the theatre-going world of post-war Britain was grateful to shout along with Jimmy Porter, the ‘hero’ of this play:

Oh heavens, I long for a little ordinary enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm – that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! …  Hallelujah! I’m alive.

It is here, in this shock of the new – class setting and characters – with a directness of language long absent from the English stage, that LOOK BACK IN ANGER gained its audience and has gained its importance in theatre history – the grenade that irreparably shuddered the English Theatre into the ‘modern’ era – in the words of John Russell Taylor, the play ‘has its inarguable importance as the beginning of a revolution in the British Theatre, and as the central and most immediately influential expression of its time, the mood of the ‘angry young man.’

Reading some of the publicity for this production of the play at the Old Fitz the question posed was curious as to why this play wasn’t revived more regularly. Many people know of the play, some have read it, but not many have seen it, we were told. Certainly, one can, historically, appreciate the cultural/political importance of this play. One, too, can admire the language of this playwright. It has an enviable (in this day and age of most Australian play writing) range of vocabulary and usage with a sinewy – a muscular – power of a frightening energy and intent. But after watching this production of the play the other evening, the problem with the play for most modern audiences would have to be, surely, the play’s content, and thus provide an answer as to why this play is not often seen? It is a play of its times and is definitely ‘of an angry young man’ and so is in 2016, if not before, culturally and politically limited in appeal and relevance, through, because, of the inevitable passage of time. It is why an Australian play like David Williamson’s, THE REMOVALISTS or  Jack Hiberd’s, DIMBOOLA have dated, when performed, and depreciated, despite their respected historical reference point in recent Australian playwrighting. Our living social context has changed dramatically. The plays reflect a value system not acceptable today.

For, Jimmy Porter, the central character of LOOK BACK IN ANGER, is a relentlessly bullying, misogynistic ‘thug’ who dominates the stage action alongside co-dependent ‘victims’, of both sexes, who offer no opposition to his self-indulgent whining and violence – of a physical and psychological tsunami force and weight. One could not help, while siting in the Old Fitz, but recall and revile again the video-recording from A CURRENT AFFAIR of Salim Mehajer, of last Monday (22 August), threatening his wife and her family, or, synchronistically, having read Mark Dundas Wood’s review of Anne Tyler’s novel VINEGAR GIRL, which is a modern usage of Shakespeare’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, in the Daily Review (24 August, Wednesday), and be drawn back into the embrace of the debate as to the justification of modern productions of that play concerning the relationship of Katherine and Petruchio. The debate around the THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is relevant and combustible still, today, and maybe, that same debate should be more so, around contemporary  productions of A LOOK BACK IN ANGER.

What was Red Line and the two Director’s thinking?  It is difficult to sit through this play as a man in 2016, let alone to be a woman in 2016, I would have thought. I found it increasingly uncomfortable throughout the night, and viscerally squirmed with the return of Alison, Jimmy’s ‘Squirrel’ to his ‘Bear’ at the end of the play, and have to listen to Alison’s speech that seemed to be a rip-off from Miss Julie and Strindberg’s great play, in her cry to Jimmy:

‘Don’t you see I am in the mud at last! I’m grovelling! I’m crawling! Oh, God…’

And to have Jimmy reply as she lies collapsed at his feet:

 …We’ll be together in our bear’s cave, and our squirrel’s drey, and we’ll live on honey and nuts – lots and lots of nuts. And we’ll sing songs about ourselves – about warm trees and snug caves, and lying in the sun. And you’ll keep those big eyes on my fur, and help me keep my claws in order, because I’m a bit of a soppy, scruffy sort of a bear. And I’ll see that you keep that sleek, bushy tail glistening as it should, because you’re a very beautiful squirrel, but you’re none too bright either, so we’ve got to be careful. There are cruel traps lying everywhere, just waiting for rather mad, slightly satanic, and very timid animals. Right?’

To which ‘Alison nods’ and ultimately ‘slides her arms around him’. How interesting it is to compare the last speech of Katherine’s in her submission to Petruchio to this of Jimmy’s.

LOOK BACK IN ANGER, is regarded as Osborne’s most biographical play, and as the Directors note, was born out of his unhappy first marriage, to Pamela Lane – he signed himself ‘Teddy’ and she ‘Nutty’ when they wrote to each other! The fact that Osborne was married five times and that his relationships were, mostly, as publicly volatile and disgustingly vehement as that between the characters in this play, as reported in his biography: JOHN OSBORNE, A PATRIOT FOR US, by John Heilpern, it gives one some pause to give a total appreciation of the author and play as a contemporary writer, to ‘celebrate’ him by staging a production of this play, today. In this production there has been some editing of the text (language and actions and including the excision of one character, The Colonel – with agent’s permission, I was told) but the play still is a scarifying example of a cultural/political attitude to women and a ‘championing’ of a kind of man that even sixty years ago ought to have rung alarms of caution – what charms Osborne must have had, or how desperate the audience was for new writing. The play, it seems to me, is an example, a reference point, today, that demonstrates how far as a civilization we have or have not grown in our mutual respect of gender and our relationship behaviours with each other. (It is arresting to note that the two Directors of this production of Osborne’s play, Lizzie Schebesta and Damien Ryan, were also involved with the recent Sport For Jove production of the ‘SHREW’. Both productions for 2016. What is the political/cultural reasoning for this double? Ms Schebesta is also one of the co-founders of the Women In Theatre and Screen (WITS) movement in Sydney – a curious choice of play to be working and presenting – I would have thought, considering how the women are treated in this play.)

Osborne himself admitted that LOOK BACK IN ANGER is ‘a formal old-fashioned play‘ and “I daren’t pick up a copy … nowadays. It embarrasses me.’ He wrote a sequel, towards the end of his life called DEJAVU, with Jimmy and Cliff still headlining the action. It opened on the 8th May, 1992. It was a failure. (P.S. Barry Humphries had been asked by the author to play Jimmy, and said he was astonished to be asked. He read the play and wrote that he had found it ‘as long as three plays, alienating in its rage, with a few too many Aunt Sallies and worryingly un-actable. …’). The note that DEJAVU was ‘alienating in its rage’ could be applied to LOOK BACK IN ANGER, I reckon.

This production, at the Old Fitz, has a successful claustrophobic Set Design by Jonathan Hindmarsh, thrust narrowly forward to the audience making the action of the playing by the actors strikingly intimate.(Although with time to kill, while watching the play, and in either of the two intervals, one can question the architecture of the space and its odd window position that is constantly suggesting a vision to street action that does not seem at all possible.) The Costumes by Anna Gardiner, have a palpable feel of tawdry squalor (except the fashion-plate look of Helena’s clothes), and the Sound Design by Katelyn Shaw is disconcertingly noisy and right for the play production.

Melissa Bonne (Alison Porter) and Chantelle Jamieson (Helena Charles) are not always convincing with the material and have not found a comfortable manner to invest in the dilemma of these women – victims of self-delusion and a masochistic acceptance of their lot in the world of Jimmy Porter. The actors are in-and-out with their conviction which does not help us to stay engaged with their characters or to endow any real empathy for them. Their conviction with these tasks does seem to struggle – and, probably, no wonder, considering what they are asked to play, to do and say, as Alison and Helena.

Robin Goldsworthy (Cliff Lewis) gives a mostly convincing Welsh accent and seems to underline the homo-erotic possibility between he and Jimmy (suggested from actual biography of the character based on Osborne’s best mate at the time, Anthony Creighton, perhaps), although Mr Goldsworthy sometimes succumbs to ‘gilding the lily’, demonstrating the emotional state of Cliff, by underlining the sentiment of the character or text with sentimental vocal or physical gesture that takes away our belief in his, generally, otherwise, good work – the best of the performances on show at the Old Fitz.

Andrew Henry (Jimmy Porter) gives a full bore energy to the principal and long role but allows that energy to often substitute for what should have a more eloquent organically developed backstory to help us understand where Jimmy’s rage and boredom comes from. The performance choices has Jimmy personified, mostly, as childishly manipulating the situation with a delight in verbal grandstanding that seems to demand theatrical applause rather than a true and invested revelation of the character’s authentic human need. Mr Henry’s Jimmy Porter is a full-on delusional sadomasochistic author of his own ill will and intent, a painfully self-indulgent man/child/teddy-bear. Our empathy for this angry young man is zilch. Not, I suspect, what Mr Osborne intended. This production reveals an answer to this company’s question in its pre-show publicity as to why this play LOOK BACK IN ANGER is rarely seen on any stage.

The ‘grenade’ effect that this famous play had on the world of British Theatre is, historically, incontestable. Its suitability for our times, so as to command a place on a stage in Sydney in 2016 is contestable. Osborne wrote many other plays, many better plays: e.g. THE ENTERTAINER (1957), LUTHER (1961), INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE (1964), A PATRIOT FOR ME (1965), besides an Academy Award winning Screenplay for TOM JONES (1963)  – Directed by Tony Richardson, who also directed the first production of LOOK BACK IN ANGER. Rather that we saw one of those than LOOK BACK IN ANGER.