Part of the Playwrights’ Playwright season at the Duke of York’s theatre, at 2pm yesterday a mouth watering cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matt Ryan and Julian Wadham) performed a rehearsed reading of John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger. The word “seminal” was invented for that kind of play: when it was first performed 56 years ago, it changed british theatre, if not british society: not only did it introduce a new kind of writing that still dominates british theatre today, but also, quite possibly, saved the Royal Court from extinction. Most of the new writing of the last 55 years might not have happened if not for this play. The delightful irony of performing the reading at the set of Posh didn’t escape anyone.
Look Back in Anger is an indestructible play. The level of the audience’s emotional engagement right from the start is so high (even if that emotion can loathing) that no matter the production, it always feels like a wild ride. It’s amazing it’s been written more than half century ago: while the play is rooted in its time (and it’s interesting to contemplate how the characters were perceived then, and how we perceive them now), the writing is fresh and current.
On the other hand, it’s not an easy play to do as a rehearsed reading. All characters (apart from Cliff) are, at first glance, people you don’t want to have anything to do with: Jimmy is a bully, Alison is passive, Helena is uptight. The actors have an uphill battle (and a magnificent challenge) in revealing the subtleties of the characters. The short preparation of rehearsed readings doesn’t allow for that, but it does allow for the text to breath and it’s wonderful to focus on the language.
Jimmy Porter is an open wound of a character, not only when he opens up about his traumas (and he is remarkably articulate and perceptive about them), but also when he bullies everyone around him. Benedict Cumberbatch, a great actor, accessed all emotions fully for every scene but inevitably the all-encompassing hurt of the character was missing.
Alison is a challenging character as her passivity, both emotional and practical (she spends a lot of time being present but not saying anything) is difficult to understand. Rebecca Hall has the talent for communicating plenty without needing any words, which serves her well on this part, although some times her reactions seemed quite small.
Helena is a mystery of a character. Anna Maxwell Martin can be inscrutable if she wants to, while still being interesting and immensely watchable. She is also an actress who doesn’t need to be liked. All good qualities for Helena and I would love to see her play the part in a full developed production.
Polly Stenham, who directed the rehearsed reading, said they only had a few hours of rehearsal time and it always amazes me what actors can achieve with hardly any preparation at all. She also said it’s her first time directing anything on stage (she should do it more), and with that level of acting talent, it was like “joy riding a Ferrari”. She has a way with words, maybe she should try writing for the theatre.
A tiny note about the audience: it ‘s obvious that much of the audience was overexcited by Mr Cumberbatch’s presence (which is to be expected), but it was disturbing hearing young girls laughing at some of Jimmy Porter’s most misogynistic lines.
There are some backstage photos at Dan Wooller’s website.
And, if you are so inclined, you can read my contemplations about Rehearsed Readings in general in another post.