Saturday, August 21, 2010

Puffing

I am sorry to say it, people seem to go to the theatre principally for their entertainment!

So complains Sneer in Sheridan’s The Critic, and if that’s what people want that’s what they’ll get if they hurry down to the Chichester Festival Theatre and catch the double bill of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Sheridan’s The Critic. Since the National put the plays together in 1985, they’ve been widely recognised as a couple, and have even been taught as a pairing in schools. In some ways that’s a shame as it’s too easy to fall into the “compare and contrast” approach to literature (the characters of Richard vs Bolingbroke, images of war in the poetry of Brooke and Owen, etc, etc). They do make for an entertaining three hours, however.

I didn’t know the Stoppard play and I was surprised at how funny it was; the parody of the country house murder is wonderfully done. The comedy is spiked by a disturbing edge when the barrier between performance and spectator, here the critics Moon and Birdboot, breaks down. It’s a deliciously dizzying sensation to be an audience watching a play about an audience watching a play, especially when that play rounds on its audience and swallows them up. It made me think of the way many of us shuffle away from the front row whenever we go to a performance for fear of being picked on, of being sucked into the event and out of ourselves. It’s the terror of the child at the pantomime who dreads being called onto stage by some fearsome dame and made a fool of in some way she cannot understand.

I did, however, reread The Critic beforehand. This is a play in which the author hands it on a plate to the company. It’s funny on the page with, in the first act, some fantastic dialogue and even more fantastic characters. Who couldn’t make much of Sir Fretful Plagiary who, worse than a bad notice hates no notice; or Mr and Mrs Dangle, a couple who are weary of one another in private but pretend to be “loving and affectionate” in public for fear of being hitched into a story. Then there’s Mr Puff, who with shameless glee reveals the secrets of his profession, from the “puff direct” to the “puff by implication”. Lovely stuff, but the act is little more than the preliminary – the puff – for the main business of the piece, which is the rehearsal of Puff’s tragedy The Spanish Armada.

If the cast made great work of Act I, they really went to town for Acts 2 and 3. Puff’s dreadful play, made more dreadful because the actors have been given carte blanche to cut “whatever they found heavy or unnecessary to the plot” – which is just about most of the script – is hilarious. It’s rendered even more so by the mess the performers make of it. While Puff is lost in admiration of his work, the actors have nothing but contempt for it, “cutting and slashing” until not even Puff knows what’s going on. Who wouldn’t relish the role of the captive Spaniard Don Whiskerandos, who takes so long expiring that eventually the actor gets bored and stomps off grumbling “I can’t stay here dying all night”. Joe Dixon really does give the Don everything in a side-splitting performance – and yes, Joe, I did see you laughing beneath your comedy whiskers and I admire you all the more for it. Then there’s Tilburina who goes mad in white satin because that, says Puff, is the theatrical rule, with her confidante who goes mad in sympathy and is ordered by Puff to keep her “madness in the background”. Both were beautifully played by Hermione Gulliford and Una Stubbs.

It’s all there in the text and this wonderful production made the most of it. But Sheridan gave the best last. The stage directions ordain that the play ends with a battle between the Spanish and British fleets followed by a triumphal masque. The directions (I’m looking at the 1988 Penguin Classics edition, ed Eric Rump) are minimal: “Flourish of drums – trumpets – cannon, etc, etc…the fleets engage…music plays Rule Britannia…The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries…etc begins with Handel’s water music – ends with a chorus”. What a gift: cannon – music – costume – marches – and etceteras! What follows is the most wonderful, barmy, chaotic, noisy, disastrous, and exuberant bit of madness I’ve ever seen on stage. I laughed until there were tears in my eyes.

I could tell you what I laughed at, but I don’t want to do spoilers. All I will say is that if I get a chance to see this production again, I’m booking front row seats (again: by a strange fate we were in the front row, and yes we were almost sucked into the performance when Mrs Dangle (Una Stubbs) asked Gerard to hold her champagne glass for her while she was dancing).

The two plays wonderfully parody their target genres: Stoppard and Christie’s The Mousetrap, Sheridan and the bombast of the eighteenth century tragedy. It’s a strange thing though, parody. We laugh at what we love: I did at any rate, for mock it how you will I still love a good fop, a witty woman, and a country house full of toffs bumping one another off. I never miss a Poirot (David Suchet’s marvellous creation), I wish they’d made more Inspector Alleyn, and I am an avid reader of eighteenth century drama. The affection shone through at Chichester, and especially in Puff, who the outstanding Richard McCabe made the butt of an affectionate fun. I love Puff: there’s a charm in his vanity, his enthusiasm, his pride and pleasure in what he has written, and the way he submits to the depredations of the actors while comforting himself with the thought that lop and top how they will, he will print every word. He is truly unaware of the awfulness of the piece: there’s a prelapsarian innocence in his complete lack of critical knowledge. Puff cares about his play, delights in his “trope, figure, and metaphor”, and it’s for that I love him.

For details of the production at the Chichester Festival theatre see - http://www.cft.org.uk/cft-productions_details.asp?pid=372

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