The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warenouse Theatre Autumn 2011
This is a clearly thought-out and sustained interpretation of a powerful play, with which I disagree.
So my job is to recognise its strengths and accomplishments while explaining why I think it is fundamentally flawed.
John Osborne's 1964 drama is a portrait of a man drowning in his own self-disgust. It opens with a nightmare scene in which the man, a solicitor, finds himself on trial for producing and disseminating an obscene object – himself – and through the rest of the play he has trouble hanging on to reality as everything around him seems to underline his failure in every area of his life.
Osborne's great talent, as Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer demonstrate, was in giving voice to the angst and anger, frequently self-directed, of characters hitherto unheard, and exposing the torments of a seemingly successful member of society is a particularly powerful subject for him, especially as he lets us see that the character's sense of unworthiness makes the trappings of success an unbearable trap.
And director Jamie Lloyd and actor Douglas Hodge have chosen to play this as comedy.
Until the last half-hour or so of the play, which turns inescapably dark, Hodge's performance is comic in style and technique, even when it isn't funny. He does comic double takes, comic near-pratfalls, comic exaggerated responses, all with a comic effeminacy that somehow suggests a mix of W.C. Fields and Larry Grayson.
He does it very well, and sustains the characterisation until the script makes it no longer possible in the final scenes.
But the play is a psychological horror story, not a comedy, and we are meant to be watching a drowning man, lashing out at everyone and everything else with a rage that is clearly deflected from his disgust with himself.
My guess is that Lloyd and Hodge wanted a comic first part to create a sharp drop to the despair of the ending, but what we get is a confusing first part (Are we really supposed to be laughing at this suffering man?) and a massive grinding of gears when things suddenly turn serious.
If we allow him this interpretation, there can be nothing but praise for Hodge's performance. Onstage almost without interruption, he creates and sustains his characterisation, employing all the comic shtick adroitly and, when finally forced to, exposing all the man's anguish.
There is a supporting cast, but as with Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer, the play exists as a platform for its central character. Douglas Hodge gives a bravura performance. It just seems to me to be wrongheaded.
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