As an admirer of Gore Vidal’s novels, the chance to see one of his plays in the UK is rare treat. This work from 1960, following two candidates for presidential nomination, has perennial appeal (the latest Broadway revival was in 2012). As one of the 20th century’s great men of letters, maybe it’s no big surprise that Vidal could write for theatre, but he makes it seem easy, with impeccable construction, well-rounded characters, sparkling dialogue and an awesome intellect when it comes to exploring and developing ideas.
This is a touring show that director Simon Evans has refined to perfection. The production is as slick as a politician might wish for – those involved with the recent Tory conference would be green with envy (there’s no coughing here). Jeff Fahey skilfully conveys a period feel as the outsider Cantwell, a dangerous figure with “naked ambition” and a sinister southern drawl. Martin Shaw is the lead, Russell, but takes the play’s title too literally. Russell is clearly the hero, but as Vidal’s alter ego he should come across less as ‘man of the people’. Shaw isn’t waspish or imperious enough and, as a result, a good deal of humour is lost.
Both leading men are commanding and the scene of their confrontation is electric. Yet the play excites as much with its trio of strong female roles. And getting three women in a play about politics ain’t bad going. Gemma Jones steals a scene as a matriarchal figure, while Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks are great as the candidates’ wives. Seeing the power behind the potential thrones embodies the insider feel that makes for delicious moments. But Vidal has also creates believably flawed relationships that both actresses can work with. Barber is particularly strong as Russell’s estranged partner. Putting on a public show, she dismisses the conference around her, saying, “I like circuses” – but hopes of renewing the marriage show her complex motivations.
When it comes to the latest addition to the conference scene, it’s Vidal himself who is the prankster here. Given his heritage and own foray into real-life campaigning it’s an exclusive view that makes the satire truly sparkle. And also… a little sad. The play can’t hide its disappointment at politics, a resignation that gives it heart. The depressing irony is that this cynical vision often feels old-fashioned. The talk of slurs taking a campaign “beyond truth” reveal Vidal as visionary, but also somehow quaint. The unsuitability of the candidates – due to mental instability or downright stupidity – shocked in the 1960s. Oh, for those good old days.
Widely performed in its native United States, John Cariani’s Almost, Maine has received its first UK production at Park Theatre. A series of scenes, with different couples facing the exigencies and ecstasies of love, it’s about ordinary people in a small American town facing up to romantic problems. The potential for sentimentality is notable, so director Simon Evans uses his talented cast to make the proceedings clear rather than cute.
The little stories might be divided into two types. There are those that deal with recognisable situations: an awkward meeting between ex-partners the night before one of them marries, where Susan Stanley conveys her character’s nervous energy perfectly, or the courtship of a tomboyish girl, which gives Lucy Eaton a chance to shine. Then there are scenes with a more surreal edge. Melanie Heslop is wonderfully cookie as a woman who carries her broken heart around in a paper bag. Hamish Clark is splendid in a scene where his character’s long-term girlfriend brings all the love she gave him back – in mail sacks. Ian Keir Attard and Patrick Walshe McBride have a great moment playing friends who literally fall in love, incapable of standing upright, made acrobatic by the truth dawning upon them.
It might frustrate you that Almost, Maine is a collection of sketches. There are unifying factors – characters are mentioned in other stories, random kisses are common and the weather is always cold – but these feel contrived. Also, it’s a little difficult to place the show in time, which bothered me. And though its hardly Cariani’s fault his effort to inject ‘magical moments’ might remind you too much of a chocolate box. I preferred the more bizarre scenes but it’s safe to say there’s something quality here for everyone – what’s your favourite favourite?
A very different kind of wartime drama, based on a novella written at the start of World War II by French intellectual Jean Bruller, aka Vercors, The Silence of the Sea is about an unusually quiet form of resistance. A German soldier is billeted with a French couple whose delivery of the silent treatment tests his sanity. It’s a form of rebellion that demands determination and restraint – both from its protagonists and the creative team of the play – and the results are startling, compelling and easy to recommend.
The Silence of the Sea is sophisticated stuff, not least in its nuanced approach to the occupying Nazi: a philosophising Francophile of remarkable amiability, he’s a musician at home so that the silence of his unwilling housemates becomes a torture to him and leads him to confide more and more.
The three complex roles produce some fine acting. Leo Bill brings just the right edge to his unusually sensitive warrior, showing great skill in just holding back from winning us over, and Simona Bitmaté gives an intense performance as the young woman forced to live with him. But it’s the excellent Finbar Lynch who has our attention, with asides to the audience that show his remarkable ability as a storyteller.
The production marks the end of the Donmar’s initiative for young directors at the Trafalgar Studios, supported by United House, and that’s a pity. The director here, Simon Evans, has excelled. Generating fantastic performances that feel in-depth but not indulgent, with the help of some great sound design from Gregory Clarke, he makes this tiny venue drip with atmosphere, and cleverly glides over the play’s more pretentious moments to focus on its powerful drama.
Gwilym Lloyd makes a dynamic Cyrano in this new production at the White Bear Theatre. His accomplished performance takes the audience on the emotional journey his life-long love Roxane makes – only quicker – we see past his prodigious proboscis to his charms well before she does. From a figure of fun and violence, we come to view Cyrano as ‘philosopher, duellist, wit and lover’. Lloyd achieves all this and, with such a firm foundation, director Simon Evans’ production does not fail.
Cyrano’s loyalty to his friends is one of many enduring qualities. They voice our concerns that his talents might be wasted for quixotic reasons, and also detail the depth of his virtues. Cyrano’s stoicism in the face of his, er, face is deeply philosophical. Chief amongst his retainers is Le Bret, whose down-to-earth delivery shows actor David Mildon’s appreciation of this fresh and engaging translation by Ranjit Bolt. Similarly, Ben Higgins makes his professional debut with a charming performance as Ragueneau, who is supported and inspired by Cyrano.
Evans skilfully uses the whole company in some playful moments of bandying wit that establish a camaraderie that pays off during darker moments. Cyrano’s proxy love affair has serious consequences, but there is plenty of fun along the way, including a scene-stealing performance from Samuel Donnelly as the dastardly De Guiche, who is also besotted by Roxane. And it is easy to see why everyone is mad about the girl – Iris Roberts gives a delightful performance as the playful yet sincere word buff. Philip Scott-Wallace (in another professional debut to be proud of) plays the handsome cadet Christian whose looks win her heart, with just the right amount of confusion to maintain sympathy for himself as well as Cyrano.
With a light touch, Simon Evans has brought out the complexities as well as joys of Rostand’s classic tale. It seems appropriate that even at Cyrano’s death there is laughter as well as tears and that neither seems out of place.