Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Country Girl ***

Clifford Odets was one of the foremost writers in the American theatre, finding his voice around the strangled agony of the Great Depression. After Broadway successes with Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy and his successful work with the acting troupe known as ‘The Group’ behind him, The Country Girl premiered on Broadway in 1950. It is generally considered the most mature, refined and insightful of his works, as well as one of the most authentic ‘backstage’ scripts that American theatre had produced.
This production of The Country Girl also has a neat symmetry to it. Martin Shaw has starred in the play before, filling the part of Bernie the young director, in a production that also took place at the Apollo Theatre. Now he comes full circle, returning to the play in the role of the aged actor, Frank Elgin.
Martin Shaw’s performance is nothing short of magnificent. Capturing astutely the volatile character, whose self-image is as complicated as the image that he constructs for everyone else. Whether prancing around the stage, projecting the image of a dancing, majestic lion or curled up in a teary foetal mass in his dressing room he is utterly convincing. The character of Frank is a complex beast and it’s a very demanding part due to the constant contradictions within the character that are brought out so violently at times but Shaw handles it superbly and produces a compelling performance.
Mark Letheren excels in what is, I think, a difficult part to master. He portrays the image of an ambitious, confident young director who knows what he wants and is willing to stand up for it. I do have issue with the attempts at making his character more troubled. He is very aggressive and I struggle to see much of a justification for it. I also think that a few steps were missed out in his relationship with the rather wooden Georgie Elgin (Jenny Seagrove). The mutual attraction was evident from the outset but it seemed to me to lack foundation. He spends most of the play at odds with her and only when he comes to realise the truth about Frank (in what is a genuinely moving and powerful scene) does he realise that he’s in love with her. This leap, for me, seems tenuous. Although it’s not uncommon for such a transition to occur I felt that emotions weren’t running high enough for the transition to appear believable.
Jenny Seagrove, I think, was undoubtedly the weak link in the chain. Her performance was of a very reserved Georgie, where I think more violent emotions would have made for a more relatable character. She spoke unclearly and quietly at times and her choices regarding the development of the character left a lot of the scenes she was in lacking the spark that was hidden in the script. She played her older than she was, even though the character acts older she is still young and that youth is missing.
The direction of the show was a strong showing for Rufus Norris. The show kept the integrity that the script demands and all the cast had distinctive roles and characters (I particularly enjoyed Luke Shaw’s performance) that came together well and succeeded in conveying the image of a show behind the scenes.
I thoroughly enjoyed the scene changes; the setting of a play being staged made a natural setting for a crew to bark at each other and practice scene changes during the actual scene changes. I see this as a piece of strong direction, keeping the main characters from the preceding scene working while the crew busy themselves in the background. Slickly managed and entertaining, it often brought some much needed light humour to what is a heavy play.
However, as much as the script may be ‘refined and mature’, the occasional quip about actors and audience behaviour makes the show enjoyable but not entertaining, the constant switching between personas makes it difficult to keep up with and the suspect characterisation of some key roles and moments makes the characters less relatable and accessible than necessary to excuse their complexity to an audience who is likely only going to see the show once.
On top of this, a more fundamental criticism of the story is the basic plot. Who would expend so much effort to coax such a troublemaker back to the stage instead of hiring someone popular and who will put ‘bums on seats’? Extrapolating from that shaky premise was always going to be difficult and I don’t think the complexity of the story is perfectly suited to a play; though would perhaps make a fine novel.
On this point, I would say that the show may be very poignant and insightful but I struggled to see that in the production. I followed the characters on their journey and by the end I cared about what happened, at least to some of them, but not, unfortunately, the character in the title role. The play is called The Country Girl but her struggle was underplayed in favour of her onstage husband (Shaw).
Although I’d say it was a good show, I’d also say that what makes the script so refined was lacking in the performance.

At the Apollo Theatre, written by Clifford Odets, directed by Rufus Norris, cast includes Martin Shaw, Jenny Seagrove and Mark Letheren, runs from 6th October 2010 - 26th February 2011.

John Ord (02/11/2010)

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