A Separate Peace
Online via www.theremoteread.com
Reviewed – 2nd May 2020
“Where this production undoubtedly succeeds is in Stoppard’s writing and the magnificent performances of a stellar cast”
“Limitation, like desperation, can be the mother of invention” says the award-winning film and director Sam Yates, talking about his revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play “A Separate Peace”, broadcast live as a real-time performance via Zoom. It is an apt rephrasing of Plato’s original quotation (“Necessity is the mother of all invention”), but then again Plato was also a strong advocate of the idea that theatre, as an artform, was immoral, disrespectful and a distraction of the mind. Not many people would agree with this, and over time, theatre has endured, and conquered greater obstacles over the centuries, and I have no doubt that it will survive the current crisis in due time.
In the meantime, however, the practitioners and audiences need something to fill the void created by the temporary closure. This has been met in part by some high-quality recordings of stage productions. Inevitably these don’t replicate the experience of live theatre. The ‘Remote Read’ series, of which “A Separate Peace” is the first, sets out to produce live virtual theatre by embracing the limitations of lockdown rather than by opposing.
Stoppard’s’ play is an inspired choice, which touches on themes of isolation and a central character who wants no social interaction at all. Set in a private nursing home, the smooth running and peace of mind of its staff is disrupted by the arrival of a new patient, John Brown. He has money, which he believes entitles him to pay for the room despite the fact he is perfectly healthy. All he wants to do is get away from the ‘chaos’ of the outside world. The nursing staff know nothing about his motives for this, or his background. Simultaneously content with taking his money, they find his presence discomforting. “We have to keep the beds for people who need them”. Half a century on this is one of many lines that resonate right now.
Where this production undoubtedly succeeds is in Stoppard’s writing and the magnificent performances of a stellar cast. Although a reading, there is little evidence of a script in hand and there is a spontaneity to the actors’ interpretation that belies the lack of a live audience. We sympathise with David Morrissey’s John Brown, albeit guiltily, as he slowly gives us clues as to why he chooses to check himself into the nursing home. The four nursing staff who unravel these clues operate on a kind of good-cop-bad-cop system. Ed Stoppard’s Matron has a knuckle duster of steel beneath his kid gloves, whereas Maggie Service’s Nurse doesn’t even bother to wear the gloves. In the background is the Doctor, played by Denise Gough like the desk sergeant coolly analysing the reality and digging deep. The most watchable is Jenna Coleman’s flirtatious yet duplicitous Nurse Maggie who teases out the mystery from the man.
By default, however, there is an experimental feel to the whole piece and while the objectives of the producers must be highly commended, this does not come close to a true theatre experience. It lies in a no man’s land somewhere between a radio play and a televised broadcast. Sam Glossop’s sound design is impressive, as is Andrzej Goulding’s occasional back projection, but the format ultimately disappoints visually. It is all too tempting to shut down the screen and just listen and let our imagination paint the picture, and the formidable cast ensure we are able to do this.
The technology for this media is in its infancy and, while I’d like to see it grow, we can only hope that there isn’t the time for it to reach maturity. Yes, it is definitely a necessity in the current situation, but let us hope that the mother of this invention is only a surrogate one, and we will soon be handed back to our natural environment when the theatres reopen.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
A Separate Peace
Online via www.theremoreread.com
Last ten shows reviewed by Jonathan: