The Schoolmistress. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough. 2-1-14

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Richard Teverson as The Hon. Vere Queckett and Sarah Moyle as Miss Caroline Dyott in The Schoolmistress
Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Arthur Wing Pinero was a major figure in Victorian and Edwardian theatre, both as an actor and especially as a prolific playwright. His comedies were extremely popular and he had a long and successful career. In spite of this his work isn’t often seen today but there was a chance to see The Schoolmistress, one of his early comedies from 1866, at the Stephen Joseph this Christmas and New Year. It was my first Pinero play in well over thirty years of regular theatre going so it was an interesting prospect, even though it probably wasn’t going to be my kind of thing. The story concerns two wives, the schoolmistress of the title and an admiral’s wife who finally turn on their selfish husbands and enjoy some freedom and some delightful young ladies who enjoy being high spirited with their young governess while their schoolmistress sneaks off to a secret life on stage for a while. There is fire, farce and a lot of Victorian pomposity to be ridiculed and while it is slow to start, as plays of this era often are, once it gets going in the second act there is fun to be had. It must have delighted it’s early audiences. In an era when polite behaviour, decorum and status was understood implicitly and closely guarded, a world where there were secret husbands and questionable behaviour would have seemed very daring. I’m sure that the middle class theatre going women, who mostly spent their time dutifully running a household, loved seeing the women on stage giving the men their comeuppance. Some of this frisson has been lost today, and in spite of a very good production the play doesn’t quite work for a modern audience, but it was still an interesting period piece to watch.

There are some delightful performances to enjoy. I admired Richard Teverson as the Honourable Vere Queckett, the feckless husband of the schoolmistress, and Peter Macqueen as Rear Admiral Archibald Rankling very much. Both performances were very cleverly controlled. I loved the moment when Vere got up from his chair, spun round and sat down again- much harder to do than it looks- and a lesser actor would have turned the Admiral into a caricature. Some of the other comedy performances didn’t quite take off but the young ladies, led by Catherine Kinsella’s sparky, fun loving governess looked gorgeous and worked well together. Sadly Pinero makes the schoolmistress of the title, Miss Dyott, who is nicely played by Sarah Moyle, wait too long for her moment but when it came she took it with great gusto.

I just wish this cast and the director Chris Monk had not had to work quite so hard on a play which really didn’t do them justice. I am glad that the matinee I saw was pretty much sold out but a few people left at the interval and I certainly don’t think that this was down to the production but to a play which has probably had its day, however much work you put into it.

For All Time. Theatre by the Lake at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 14-11-09

There has to be something not quite right when you are watching a three hander with William Shakespeare as one of the characters and he is the least interesting person on stage. For All Time is set at the end of his career. He is portrayed as tired, dissolute and disillusioned, no longer able to access his creativity or even remember the names of some of his plays ( “the snake play”). During the course of his writing session on The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher we are given a quick trot through the basics of his life, his father’s financial ruin, his distant relationship with his wife, his dual life in Stratford and London, his success, the rumours that Marlowe was still alive and writing his plays for him and the loss of his son Hamnet. We also meet his mistress Margaret, a wench with a heart of gold, who is keeping the fact that she is pregnant with his child secret and see him admitting to Fletcher that he is going blind. The dialogue is by no means Elizabethan, Marlowe is described as gay for example, and in spite of some of the nice touches in the set and costumes I never quite managed to believe that I was watching a little piece of Elizabethan England, or seeing the man who wrote the plays in front of me. Three days ago I saw Peter MacQueen give an excellent performance so I am going to come off the fence and blame the writing. It simply isn’t good enough. What it needs is certainty of tone. You are either steeped in Elizabethan England or you are not.

The play is saved from disaster by a charming and cleverly judged performance from Dennis Herdman as John Fletcher. He is an overtly stylish gay man who somehow manages to be a very recognisable and modern figure as well as one who belongs in the world of the play and his acting has bravura and sensitivity. This is exactly what the writing doesn’t manage to do for the character of Shakespeare. We know that he has lost his creativity now, but it is important to believe that it was once there, and I never quite did. It was good to see John Fletcher and Shakespeare’s mistress Margaret together in the second half when they play with his latest toy- a telescope- and have a tender scene together as two people who both loved Shakespeare and knew that they were not loved in return. Margaret is a touching character and very well played by Aimee Thomas, who finds more in her than the stereotypical tart with a heart barmaid.

The set and the lighting are lovely. There is not a false note in that side of the production at least, everything is very well judged and used effectively.

In the programme the writer, a first time playwright called Rick Thomas, asks us to forgive him for making some of it up, given that virtually nothing is known about Shakespeare. Given that he set himself a very difficult task, I do……… but only just.

Blackbird. Theatre by the Lake at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 10-11-09.

Janine Hales. Theatre by the Lake production still.

Una has found a photograph of a man in a magazine advert who she had an affair with fifteen years ago, when she was twelve years old, and decided to track him down at his workplace. She wants some answers and during the course of an hour and three quarters of this highly charged, claustrophobic two hander, played without an interval, she gets them. They are not the kind of answers which lead to certainty or a resolution of the damage which has been done to her self esteem and her capacity to love, and they are not the kind of answers which will make up for the social stigma which she was left with. They are the kind of answers which simply lead to more questions and more confusion. Her abuser, Ray, has spent the fifteen years since the affair reinventing himself with a new life and a new long standing relationship, and the answers which she needs have to be dragged out of him painfully, little by little. She makes him repeat the word abuse as though to validate what they have told her, since it didn’t feel like that to her at the time, and also to make him understand the consequences of his actions, consequences which he never had to see. She is still painfully confused. Nothing is simple. You can see her enjoying the power she still has over him and mourning a relationship which she felt was real love, and at the same time trying to understand the confused, damaged twelve year old that she once was. She may even want him back. The affair came to an end suddenly, when Ray ran away in guilt and confusion after taking her away to a small hotel and she was left to face the court case alone when he was prosecuted, and be made to re-evaluate what she had felt was love in front of a psychologist. She has carried her pain with her for a long time and there is only one place where she has a chance of dumping it and moving on. Ray is a frightened and broken man, afraid of what he might hear and terrified about what might come next. Neither of them are strong enough to prevent more confusion and indecision stirring up strong feelings and resentments which have been hidden under the surface of their lives. There are no rights or wrongs here, and no neat endings for me to spoil, just two confused, flawed, deeply unhappy people locked into the past and trying to make sense of what happened to them.

If this is the subject matter you choose you had better be able to write an extraordinary play and David Harrower has come pretty close to doing that. It won an Olivier award in 2007 and it is easy to see why. The dialogue is masterly, naturalistic and heartfelt, and avoids cliché, not easy when you have dialogue as highly charged as this. The dialogue carries almost the whole weight of the structure of the play, as there is little but words to take us through the shifts of power between the two characters and define the peaks and troughs of the narrative. It is a great opportunity for two actors to show what they can do, and Janine Hales as Una and Peter McQueen as Ray rise to the challenge well. They both give truthful understated performances which allow the play to do its work and they are also well able to let the emotion and the anger rip when it is needed.

David Harrower is insistent that Oleanna is not an influence on this play, but it is hard not to be reminded of David Mamet‘s powerful and emotional two hander as you leave. There is one big difference. Oleanna sends you out onto the street ready to argue a case and potentially angry with those who take an opposite view. Blackbird sends you out of the theatre knowing that in life there are no easy answers and that right and wrong are sometimes difficult to define and too easy to pontificate about. This makes it a more truthful play, and I would suggest a greater one.