The Hampstead Theatre is showing the World Premiere of American Playwright Richard Nelson’s play Farewell to the theatre Directed by Roger Michell and recently I went along to see what this new play was all about. The Hampstead Theatre was looking lovely bathed in the Spring sunshine and a glass of wine from the well-stocked bar inside was a fabulous start.
Richard Nelson’s work is about Harley Granville-Barker barley a household name and a transforming influence in the theatre world. Born in 1877 he rejected the mannered and starchy Victorian approach to the business of staging drama, with its imperious managers, and helped to shift power away from them and instead to the directors, playwrights and actors. Harley ran the Royal Court, encouraged more women to get into the business, and was among the first to speak of the need for a national subsidised theatre. This play shows a snapshot in the life of Harley as he spends time with other ex-pats in America lecturing at a college.
The year is 1916 and Granville-Barker is holed up in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the midst of a divorce from his actress wife. Drop-dead handsome (like Barker) and radiating languid irony and emotional reserve, Ben Chaplin is a superb in the role of Barker and he is joined by a very talented and experienced cast including Tara Fitzgerald, Jemma Redgrave, Jason Watkins and William French as the only American character in Massachusetts!
The setting is a dimly lit boarding house at a college campus managed by English woman Dorothy (a touching Jemma Redgrave) who has suffered heartache with the death of her husband, who she still mourns for; there are secrets in this relationship like every other character seems to have and the play reveals these secrets as the 1hour 40 minute run of the play goes on. The only American, Charles Massinger, is an ambitious student. His performance in a production of Twelfth Night directed by Dorothy’s brother is an opportunity for gruesome self-advancement; it highlights the pettiness of academic rivalry and causes Dorothy further hearache for her brother’s treatment.
Jason Watkins as Frank Spraight is a sad insomniac who specialises in reciting the works of Charles Dickens (as he recites a monologue you hardly notice the set change behind him as he uses all his talent to become the characters). Frank awaits news of his ailing wife and when the truth about a letter he receives is revealed the sadness is felt by all. Through Frank, Nelson introduces touches of poignancy and moments of humour.
Farewell to the Theatre is a memorable and absorbing mix of hopes, deceptions, despotism, cruelty and personal tragedy, my only downfall would be the lack of an intermission but I highly recommend a visit to the theatre as this season they have some amazing productions and the venue is a great place out of the main West End.
Farewell to the Theatre – 1 March to 7 April 2012
London NW3 3EU