Anthony Maskell – ✮✮✮✮
When you walk into Luke Howarth’s production of David Hare’s play at the Keble O’Reilly, you immediately find yourself stopping and – dare I say it – staring at the exposed scrotum of the unconscious naked man lying on the floor in front of you. It’s worth noting that, in the script, Hare stated that the man lies face down, but clearly Howarth thought he could do something interesting here. After all, nudity doesn’t have to be gratuitous. It certainly grabbed our attention, even if we didn’t really know at the time why exactly it was being grabbed. Hare himself said once that the very concept made for a “delicious” opening. He wasn’t wrong.
The plot follows Susan Traherne – a young woman who served as a courier in Nazi-occupied France during World War II – and examines through non-chronological scenes her exciting past and her post-war delusion, as well as that of those around her. After the War, Susan slips into a life of mundanity and monotony, marrying a diplomat and spinning into a depressive descent. Susan’s mental health gradually deteriorates, and the fractured non-linear display of her life perfectly demonstrates her splintered consciousness – her mutable anxiety from past to present.
Fortunately, we are in safe hands with Gráinne O’Mahony, on whose shoulders the play ultimately rested. Her Susan was pithy, vulnerable, and erratically charged. In scenes from during the War, we see her swept up in the stimulating rush of her day-to-day danger; in the wake of post-war Britain, we watch her slowly unravel. Andrew Dickinson as her supportive but at-his-tether husband was overwhelmed slightly by O’Mahony’s tour-de-force electricity, but it made his performance all the more fragile and desperate. Aoife Cantrill was perfectly aloof and eccentric as Susan’s bohemian housemate Alice, and there were good supporting turns from George Varley and Dominic Pollard as somewhat emotionally detached diplomats.
This production clearly paid meticulous attention to its design, which bolstered both the wartime feel and the post-war bourgeois frump. The simplistic but tasteful set of Susan’s house was instrumental in conveying this feeling, and each scene was lit in a new and engaging way from the last. In particular, the penultimate scene was fantastically lit by a single glowing lamp. There was a dreary green hue that resembled the bleak, empty loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting. We could hear an intimate conversation, but all we could see on stage were ominous, ethereal silhouettes.
Not to sound pedantic, but there were a few minor anachronisms – in one scene Raymond sported a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt (the company was founded in 1967; the action of the play stretches as far as 1961), a very modern whiskey bottle, and – perhaps shockingly of all – I spied a copy of last week’s Cherwell in one scene (oh dear). But these were minor hiccups, and none of them detracted from the play’s solid grounding.
There is a tragic sentiment at this play’s heart. The people of Britain were promised in the aftermath of the War a time of “plenty”, but what they found was rigid austerity. Hare’s play captures the pain of lost youth and a forgotten, buried past, and this production was wise to extrapolate this.
Naomi Gardom – ✮✮✮✮
What do you do when your world lacks nothing, except any sense of purpose or meaning? This is the question that faces Susan Traherne when the Second World War comes to an end, and she can no longer work as a Special Operations Executive. Returning to civilian life, she finds a world of plenty, where food, alcohol, money, sex, and domestic comforts abound; yet somehow, as she moves from job to job, and works her way through a faltering relationship, she cannot recapture the ardent simplicity of her previous life. And so, over time, she goes mad.
Gráinne O’Mahoney’s Susan is a performance, quite simply, of genius. The play has a non-linear chronological structure, which makes immense demands on the leading actor, as she is required to depict Susan, broken and approaching middle-age in one scene, only to have her as an idealistic young woman in France in the next. However, O’Mahoney commands her way across the stage like a thespian Elizabeth I; capricious and deceitful, yet always burning with that fiery idealism which eventually consumes her and destroys her chance of happiness.
Luke Howarth’s production is a conscious piece of polemic against the marginalisation of women, and the stigmatisation of mental illness. He is keen to demonstrate that this is not merely a piece of post-war drama or a depiction of historical woes, but relevant to the issues of contemporary society. In this endeavour, he is assisted by Hare’s sparse and naturalistic dialogue; while there are some spectacularly quotable lines (such as ‘it’s not as if, in the diplomatic profession, having a mad wife is any kind of disadvantage,’), for the most part Hare avoids epigram for the sake of honesty. This can sometimes provoke the sensation of being hit over the head with a blunt instrument, particularly when it comes to the gender politics of the piece. When Dorcas, a surprisingly experienced ingénue, asserts to Susan that ‘stupid people are happier’, this statement feels somewhat superfluous given the content of the previous scenes, in which Susan’s remarkable intelligence has failed to bring her any kind of happiness.
However, Howarth has got it right when he says that this is a play about characters. Susan glitters her way through a series of relationships, none of them straightforward. Perhaps the best foil for O’Mahoney’s performance comes from Aoife Cantrill’s portrayal of Alice, Susan’s friend and ‘the only Bohemian in London’. Alice is simple where Susan is complicated; innocent where Susan is disillusioned, and clearly a product of the post-war mentality that if you want, you should take and have.
While there were a few teething problems with production and cues, the sheer energy and excitement of the cast carry the audience along with them, and make this production a delight to watch.
Plenty will be playing at the Keble O’Reilly from the 11th – 14th February