The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2008
Michael Frayn's new play is inventive, ambitious and literary. What it isn't, despite all the technical resources of the National Theatre, is dramatic.
His subject is the Austrian impresario-director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). At his peak one of the most active and admired theatre producers in Europe, he lived in elegance (though always on credit) until he fled the Nazis to spend the last ten years of his life in America in relative inactivity and poverty.
Frayn's invention is to filter Reinhardt's story through one of his most famous productions, the annual outdoor staging of the medieval play Everyman in Salzburg. (Quick reminder - the medieval play is an allegory in which Death calls the prosperous Everyman, who searches for someone to accompany him on his journey. Riches, Friends, etc. all abandon him, leaving only Faith and Good Works)
Frayn's play opens with Reinhardt acting out Everyman while trying to convince the Archbishop of Salzburg to let him stage it on the cathedral steps. We see him rehearsing bits of it throughout the play, underlining the parallels to his own life. Reinhardt and those around him openly invoke the similarities or quote the medieval play, he repeatedly identifies with Everyman, the real life characters repeatedly lapse into the rhymed couplet style of the medieval play (and notice it), and Reinhardt finds himself staging real life events in exactly the same way he directs the pageant.
Clever as this is, there are real problems with the device. For one, we very quickly get the point - Reinhardt, like Everyman, is living on borrowed time, and when the call comes none of his worldly success will help him - and all Frayn's ingenuity just repeats it over and over, adding little.
For another, as the story progresses, we have time to realise that the parallels aren't really very accurate or telling - where Everyman is called at the peak of his prosperity and shocked to learn how little it is worth, we are repeatedly reminded that Reinhardt has always lived on the edge of ruin, and his friends desert him only in the sense of dying first. (And the increasingly strained parallels force Frayn to briefly identify Hitler with the medieval play's God.)
Even more damaging, though, is the gradual realisation that the evocation of Everyman isn't really explaining or giving meaning to Reinhardt's story. In his two most recent based-on-real-life plays, Copenhagen and Democracy, Frayn began with figures and events of importance, and used his art to help us see how and why they were important.
Here, one can't escape the sense that he is using all his art to try to invest a minor story with importance, borrowing the tragic power of Everyman and imposing it undeservedly on Reinhardt's life. Strip away the razzle-dazzle and there doesn't seem to be very much there.
But the biggest disappointment of all is that the play is never dramatically involving, the people in it never made very much more real than the allegorical figures in Everyman. Frayn's text is one of his most inventive and literary, and I am sure that it reads beautifully. But it just sits there in its grand staging, never really coming alive.
Some of that failure may belong to director Michael Blakemore, who seems to have devoted more energy (in the Reinhardt mode) to creating striking stage pictures on Peter Davison's overpowering sets than to creating human drama.
The cast - Roger Allam as Reinhardt, Abigail Cruttenden as his mistress and later wife, Selina Griffiths as the obligatory adoring secretary, Peter Forbes as his despairing financial man and David Schofield as a cynical observer - all work very hard. But you are likely to come away with more of a sense of their hard work than of any reality they managed to create.
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