“some of the laughs are misplaced today, but with a nod to its self-mocking humour, there is no doubt it is entertaining”
There is a jet-black coffin centre stage throughout Patrick Marber’s staging of Alan Bennett’s seminal seventies farce, “Habeas Corpus”. Symbolic or not of whether this revival will survive the kiss of life Marber smothers it with, its prominence is a distraction rather than a subtle reminder of Bennett’s underlying themes of mortality. “Habeas Corpus” is a play with two personalities; at once naturalistic, even touching the human chord, yet at the same time, a farce. The quiet, introverted musings on life are nearly always drowned out by the brash energy and seaside naughtiness of the comedy.
And energy is what this production certainly has, the key ingredient of farce – along with the extra marital shenanigans, mistaken identities, absurd situations, challenged respectability, and characters without their trousers. We are in GP Arthur Wicksteed’s home surgery in Hove. Richard Hudson’s blank, stark set allow us to imagine the draping of misogyny and sexism with which the doctor has furnished his house. We are introduced to the players by Ria Jones’ Mrs Swabb. Wicksteed would be a far more successful physician if he pursued his career as diligently as he pursues women. His wife, Muriel, is more assertive while his son is a timid hypochondriac who uses a fake terminal illness as a chat up line. Enter Connie, who has ordered a false pair of breasts to boost her confidence. Lady Rumpus is an expatriate, colonial figure, protective of her daughter Felicity while Canon Throbbing is a frustrated celibate who… well – his name says it all. Then there is Mr Shanks who arrives to fit Connie’s breasts, Sir Percy Shorter, a leading light in the medical profession out for revenge and Mr Purdue, a sick man who hangs over the proceedings like (and sometimes in) a noose.
Jasper Britton adds a bit of charm to his dated salaciousness. There is enough irony there to forgive him (the actor rather than the character). Catherine Russell’s Muriel has a light-hearted sparkle that occasionally flickers to reveal a more profound hurting. Kirsty Besterman is a joy to watch as the ‘spinster’ who believes the only way to a man’s heart is through her body; a tenet that is constantly reinforced by the men in the piece. Mercifully the entire cast play on the dated perceptions and, again, we forgive. The sheer entertainment value carries us along.
The sensation is like revisiting, after many years, a favourite pub that has since been refurbished. The new décor clashes with the fondness of memory. Marber has added a few twists that jar. Occasionally the poetic language bizarrely morphs into surreal song routines. The sadness and the cruelty behind the comedy are more hidden than they should be. Yet nostalgia is unreliable. Perhaps Bennett’s text was flawed back in the seventies. Perhaps not. Perhaps it still isn’t, and it is the times we live in that force us to judge it unfavourably. But that is another debate. If “Habeas Corpus” is a farce it certainly fulfils its purpose. Yes, some of the laughs are misplaced today, but with a nod to its self-mocking humour, there is no doubt it is entertaining. We just need to avoid politicisation for a couple of hours, be aware that all concerned have their tongue in their cheek, and enjoy.
“The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms”
The original intention of Chekhov was for “The Cherry Orchard” to be a comedy; yet when it was first staged in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre, the writer/director Constantin Stanislavski turned it into a tragedy. If not distressed, Chekhov was very irritated by the misrepresentation of his work. Enough to put him in a mild state of depression. Ever since, there has been much discussion on the multi-layered nature of the play’s message.
Sean Mathias’ production at Theatre Royal, Windsor knows which side of the fence it lies and undoubtedly remains true to Chekhov’s intentions. With the help of a stellar cast the humour of the piece shines through and is maintained throughout the overly long two and a half hours running time. This is no mean feat, given that the characters themselves are generally not the comic type. Yet the wonderful ensemble cast bring out the flaws and the foolishness; the childishness in a seemingly mature group of people. It’s a kind of coming-of-age story for those who have already long come of age.
Fresh from the demands of his trail-blazing and age-defying Hamlet, Sir Ian McKellen is taking a step back, trying to blend into the background as the elderly servant Firs. There is a danger of his cameo becoming the lead but his generosity and sheer attention to the detail of how his character fits into the narrative lead to what is both a show-stealing performance, yet allowing his fellow actors to plunder as much as they can. Robert Daws is an absolute delight as the cash strapped moocher, overflowing with optimism and drunken charm and bouncing off Martin Shaw’s more successful but less confident Lopakhin. Shaw skilfully managed to mix a self-conscious awareness of Lopakhin’s peasant background with a cocksure sense of his own right to cut the privileged down to size (and ultimately cut down their beloved cherry orchard).
Francesca Annis, as Ranyevskaya the owner of the estate, swoops onto the stage majestically. No stranger to personal tragedy, she still seems clothed in waves of happiness. Yet Annis has the skill to show us the many tears and gashes that are covered up. The childlike way she greets her furniture as affectionately as her family is simultaneously ridiculous and tender. Her mix of tragedy and comedy is most (there’s only one way to put it) Chekhovian. But the minor characters also manage to have a major effect. Missy Malek and Kezrena James as the two sisters; and Alis Wyn Davies as the maid, Dunyasha, are names to look out for. Alison Halstead gives a fireball of a performance as the circus performer, trickster come governess, Charlotte. The only one who doesn’t quite seem to grasp the sense of fun that can be had with these characters is Jenny Seagrove, who plays the brother Gaev with a touch too much seriousness and lack of colour.
This is a piece that focuses on the characters and their interactions more than the story. After all, not an awful lot happens. In Act One, the cherry orchard is in danger of being sold, in Act Two it is on the verge of being sold, in Act Three it is sold, and in Act Four it has been sold. The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms and rambling lives that are just about keeping afloat. Much to relate to. There is tragedy everywhere, but we don’t always want to focus on that. This show, led by the inimitable McKellen et al, encompasses Chekhov’s spirit and lets us laugh at the seriousness of it all. Even if only for a couple of hours, but it is worth every minute.