Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 3. 1962.
At the Theatre
At the Theatre
For the half-dozen students interested in such things, the visit of the "Old Vic" Theatre Company was of very great significance. For most of us it was the first opportunity to see a world-class theatre company. This was, therefore, not only a valuable experience in itself, but also an introduction to world theatre standards, and some sort of guide to the standard of local productions.
The most obvious general criticism is that these were productions more appropriate to the 'thirties than to the 'sixties. There was no hint, here, of John Osborne or Harold Pinter, of Peter Hall or Franco Zeffirelli, of Sean Kenny, of Vanessa Redgrave or Ian Bannen. These were definitely productions of the dramatic Establishment. This, of course, is not surprising since it is what we associate with the "Old Vic"; neither is it completely inappropriate in this country, perhaps, since New Zealand often finds itself some thirty years behind the times.
The second criticism is, perhaps, a corollary of the first. This is the exploitation of the "star" system and the consequent peculiar choice of plays. The Lady of the Camellias in particular, can be justified on no other grounds, and it seems strange that an English touring company should present two French plays to their Antipodean cousins.
None, however, could quibble about the choice of Twelfth Night, surely one of the most delightful, and stageworthy comedies of the Shakespearean canon. Judged on its own terms (those of the Establishment) the production was quite acceptable. It was straightforward, without gimmicks, and showed some vitality and a good sense of timing.
The set was a little too like a birthday cake, and the actors, in costumes more representative of seventeenth century France than of Elizabethan England, were even more over-dressed than the stage. There is some excuse for such splendour, however, in such a sunny comedy and there was no sense of gaudiness. The total visual effect was pleasantly reminiscent of a Poussin landscape.
Robert Helpmann, the producer, made good use of the set, He alternated between beautifully-balanced tableaux for the Cesario—Olivia—Orsino scenes and a lively fluidity in the clowning scenes. The actions of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian in Malvolio's letter scene were particularly amusing, and this scene was consequently one of the highlights of the night.
On the debit side it is difficult to understand Helpmann's reversal of the first two scenes. Shakespeare has been careful to set the play's tone with the Duke's opening speech ("If music be the food of love ..."), and to replace it with the storm scene gives a totally wrong impression.
As a whole the production smacked of the commonplace, but this is probably better than the forced striving for originality which is reported to be marring English productions of Shakespeare.
It was in Twelfth Night that many of the actors appeared at their best. John Merivale, the company's "leading man," made a delightful Sir Andrew Aguecheek (but why the lisp?), and Frank Middlemass a splendidly bucolic Sir Toby Belch. (It was Merivale, however, who did the belching, and what a resonant, connoisseur's blurp it was!). Together, these two provided some of the best scenes of the play.
Acting honours of the night go, however, to Basil Henson, whose Malvolio lacked some haughtiness in his first scene, but after that could scarcely be faulted. His approach to the part was a sympathetic one which brought out the pathos as well as the ridiculousness of this character, and presented a picture of Malvolio which, I am sure, will colour my reaction whenever I re-read the play.
Sally Home as Olivia combined beauty with considerable talent, and her maid, Maria, was well played by Patricia Raine. Maria's combination of naivety and cunning, and her dual relationships to her mistress and the drunken knights was skilfully played. Congratulations must also go to Paul Harris (Orsino) if only because he managed to up-stage Miss Leigh on two separate occasions.
Disappointment of the performance was Vivien Leigh, the muchheralded "star." That she drummed out her lines in a deadly monotone is all the more unfortunate because she possesses a splendid voice. In the same way, her natural gracefulness of movement was never related to the character she was meant to portray. One was left with the impression of unrealised potentialities—physical advantages without the technique to use them.
Finally, mention must be made of Mark Kingston, as Feste, the clown. This was a lesson Miss Leigh could note, of how a voice should be used. Even as a singer, Mr Kingston was quite successful despite a tendency to cut short the last note of a phrase, thus spoiling the delicate melodic lines. I do not know what version of the "O Mistress Mine" melody he used, but it fitted the words less perfectly than that from Morley's First Book of Consort Lessons, standardised by Alfred Deller.
In the background effective use was made of "Callino Castore Me," and another Elizabethan melody which was cleverly used as a leitmotiv for Orsino and his court. This was an object lesson for local producers in the use of incidental music.
The Lady of the Camellias
With the Dumas play came an interesting see-saw of talents. While most of the company sank to mediocrity, Vivien Leigh rose to mediocrity, and things evened out considerably.
As I hinted above, the only possible reason to produce this trivial piece is the fact that there is only one real character in it, and she must, almost inevitably, hit the audience in the face. This time she did not. The play has been described as a virtuoso piece for the leading actress. The "Old Vic" turned it into a concerto for diarrhoeic costume-designer with "theatrical" accompaniment.
Little more can, or should, be said. Most of the actors were obviously embarrassed with the material they were called upon to use. To describe John Merivale's Armand Duval as far below his Sir Andrew is more complimentary to his taste than condemnatory of his talent. The producer, too, seemed to be uncomfortable, and the switching of stage sides when Armand and Marguerite were alone resembled some farcical square dance.page 7
The only person who seemed to be at home was Miss Leigh.
Duel of Angels
After the miscarriage of The Lady it is pleasant to report a successful Duel. The curtain rose on tableau Imitating Seurat's "Sunday on the Grand Jatte." This eye-catching opening was not wasted; once our attention was gained, it was held.
Giraudoux has created here one of the most beautiful of twentieth century plays. Its general tone, and in particular, the combination of the serious with the comic, recalls only Bergman's film, "Smiles of a Summer Night," despite the difference of themes and presentation. Much of the play's effectiveness is due to the splendidly theatrical rhythms of Fry's translation which match beautifully the equally splendid rhythm of the structure as a whole.
It was this latter rhythm, the carefully Judged balance of part against part, which was most notable in this production. Helpmann surpassed himself and I do not remember seeing another play so beautifully shaped. Each scene was shaped well In Itself and fitted neatly into the pattern of the whole. To take the first act as an example, the use of long pauses at the beginning was courageous and profoundly justifiable. The gradual speeding up of pace had all the gathering tension created by the entry of parts in a fugue, and the separation of Paola and Armand which climaxed the scene was speeded up like an exciting stretto. The whole was punctuated by the silent appearance and disappearance of the cafe crowd, which caused a sort of darkening and lightening effect, an alternation between miid claustrophobia and the relief which follows it.
All this had the effect of raising theatre to the level of abstract art, white retaining its "message-carrying" function (in this case a conflict of vice and virtue). Much of it must be attributed to Giraudoux himself, but Helpmann, too, deserves his credit. This production showed unusual accord between playwright and director. The play's weakness is excessive wordiness, especially in Acts I and III, but the skilful placing of dialogue avoided monotony, and there was mercifully none of the "square dancing" noted earlier.
Obviously Helpmann could not have achieved this success without the co-operation of the actors and they must also be congratulated therefore although it must have required the external eye of the producer to create the total effect. In point of fact the actors, as a whole, were somewhat disappointing and robbed the production of the final polish which might have made it near-perfect.
This stricture does not apply to Sally Home, who had already shown signs of her remarkable ability as Olivia in Twelfth Night. As Lucille ("Virtue") she combined physical beauty with poignancy and wistfulness perfectly suited to the role. In many scenes Vivien Leigh was obviously leaning on Miss Home's support.
Basil Henson, too, turned in an excellent characterisation of Count Marcellus ("Vice."). The subtle attractiveness of the character was usually nicely balanced against its complementary repulsiveness.
Vivien Leigh, as Poala, the woman attracted to "Vice," was again disappointing, and one could only be pleased that she was in the less important female role. John Merivale played Armand, the man attracted to "Virtue." Although he was more at home than in The Lady, he was still a little awkward in his stance, and failed to catch the finer points of character, so that Armand became more abstract than individual.
To sum up, what have we gained from the visit of "Old Vic"? We have seen a good production, a quite good one, and a dismal one. We have the names of a few good actors to remember (Sally Home, Basil Henson, Patricia Raine). We have seen some fine individual performances (Frank Middlemass's Sir Toby, John Merivale's Sir Andrew, Mark Kingston's Feste). We have learnt, perhaps, not to underestimate local productions. Above all, we have had ample evidence of the fallibility of the "star" system.
Despite one good production, and some excellent moments in another, the total impression left by the company is staid conventionality. There is little of the artistic adventure about these programmes and one is not surprised that the under thirties are branching out in new directions in the English Theatre. It would be a pity if we were to miss out on this young adventure, and I hope that local producers will not be overwhelmed by the financial success of the "Old Vic."