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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Daphne Laureola
Granada Television 1978 and YouTube   Spring 2022

This is the kind of play that gave British theatre of the 1940s a bad name once John Osborne and his gang appeared in the 1950s.

It is not bad – indeed, it is well-made, it offers some strong roles for actors, and it even has something to say. But in the shadow of Jimmy Porter's anguish or Beatie Bryant's self-discovery it cannot help but feel thin and trivial.

Still, it is worth seeing, if only as a history lesson. James Bridie was a successful playwright of the period, better known for plays on Scottish or biblical themes than social comedy or drama, but Daphne Laureola was a big success in 1949.

A bit rambling in its construction, it is the sort of play that seems to be going in one direction but keeps surprising us by shifting focus or becoming more serious than we expected.

It opens in a slightly faded upscale restaurant, where a slightly faded upscale woman, pleasantly tipsy, startles fellow diners by bursting into song, telling intimate stories about herself, and eventually inviting everyone around to her place for tea.

In Act Two we find her at home, considerably more sober and dignified, with little memory of the people appearing at her doorstep but trying to be gracious and welcoming.

We eventually learn that she was a highly educated and accomplished businesswoman and society leader who somehow cracked under the strain of all her accomplishments. Her much older husband is her protector but also her keeper, and the attentive manservant is also nurse and minder.

(The title alludes to the Greek myth of the nymph who escaped from a god's advances by being turned into a plant, but was thereafter trapped within her refuge.)

Among her impulsively-invited guests is a young Polish student who falls half-Oedipally in love with her glamour and fragility, and much of the last part of the play is devoted to gently weaning him away from his infatuation.

The original stage production starred Edith Evans who, one can imagine, would have brought a mix of mild dottiness and solid elegance to the play. This 1978 television version is built around Joan Plowright, a great actress who is not quite right for the role.

Plowright's genius has always been to anchor her characters in a solid earthy reality – whoever she played had elements of the lady next door.

And here we absolutely recognize and believe in the woman she's playing, but what we miss is the element of specialness and otherworldliness – the qualities that would draw everyone else in the play to her and that would colour her story with the tragic air of something lost in the gilded cage that is her life.

Put another way, there is a limit to how much the play or the performer make us care.

The same is true in the writing of the other characters. The lovesick student is something just this side of a cliché, and the more earnestly actor Clive Arrindell plays him the more trivial he becomes.

Laurence Olivier (host-producer of this series of TV plays and, incidentally, Mr Plowright) offers a very generously underplayed performance as the husband, but in the process softens the dark suggestions that his wife is his possession and prisoner.

Even Bryan Marshall as the vaguely sinister servant-keeper comes across as a pale imitation of a stock Pinter character.

Try to imagine you had never heard of Osborne or Wesker or Pinter or Hare or even Ayckbourn – or, indeed, even Rattigan, who was doing the same sort of thing as Bridie here, but with more depth and honesty – and you can see how 1940s audiences were pleased with plays like this.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Daphne Laureola - Granada TV 1978 - 2022