“I mean these things between people – people one cares for – it’s hard to bear them“. In the middle of the play, this words uttered by St John Quartermaine, land like a bomb. Quickly the moment passes. Most other characters try not to feel, and only care up to a point, they have considerations, alliances, careers, plans to distract them. St John Quartermaine, played by Rowan Atkinson, has nothing but the staff room at this English school for foreigners.
Simon Gray’s play, written more than 30 years ago, is set in the fringes of Cambridge academia. Tweed jackets, heavy bookcases, leather chairs and croquet, but also frustration as none of these professors play with the big boys. In many other ways, it’s a depressingly modern workplace. Co-workers talk of lifelong friendships and bonds between them, but time and again practicalities get in the way. Efficiency marches in, the weakest links are cut loose. Leave any man behind.
We hardly learn anything about St John Quartermaine. There is talk of his younger days at Oxford. The few things he says about himself are unreliable. Has he forgotten everything? Much of the time he is silent, lost in thoughts he ‘ll never put into words. It would be easy for this character to leave us empty. Rowan Atkinson makes him heartbreaking. Throughout the play, he repeats words and platitudes and without obvious change the meaning becomes more desperate. Atkinson plays a man clinging on the bright side of life while swallowed by the dark. I know Revstan has a different take, but I have none of her objections.
Will Keen often steals the show as Derek Meadle, the temporary professor: dysfunctional, on the outside looking in, unlikely survivor, often chilling. When he turns against Quartermaine, it’s a heart stopping moment: he, and everyone else, are revealed for what they are.
Everyone in the cast rises to the occasion: Conleth Hill, as Henry, walks the tight rope of faded matinee idol, smooth operator, desperate father. Felicity Montagu as Melanie attracts sympathy and uses it as a weapon. Matthew Cottle as Mark appears weak but knows to get what he wants.
Richard Eyre is one of England’s most revered stage directors, although I was not around to see him in his years as artistic director of the National Theatre. Revered is often another word for boring, but not in his case. Every production of his stands out for simplicity and truth. The fireworks are in the uncompromising humanity. I was completely bowled over by The Dark Earth and The Light Sky at the Almeida, and was won over and deeply touched by the Quartermaine’s Terms.