“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.
“fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence”
“The Sunset Limited”, by the American novelist, playwright and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, was originally published as ‘A Novel in Dramatic Form’. What distinguishes this from a play is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that the award-winning writer’s unique style infuses each word and phrase with customary flamboyant bleakness that holds our attention to an almost uncomfortable degree.
Devoid of any real theme or plot, it is fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence. In the past, McCarthy has admitted that he respects only authors who “deal with issues of life and death”. Indeed, his nihilistic, almost existential approach can be off-putting on the surface, but his command of language and colloquial style effortlessly draw us into this short, one act play. And once we are in, what keeps us there – in this case – are the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton who play the two nameless characters.
Referred to only by the colour of their skin, Beadle is labelled ‘Black’, while Britton is ‘White’. All the action (or inaction) takes place in Black’s sparse, run-down tenement building. Black is an ex-convict while White is a professor. Sounds predictable and insensitively black and white, but any potential stereotyping is rapidly subverted and quashed. Black is cheerful; an optimist and evangelical Christian while White is an irredeemably miserable atheist. It becomes clear in the opening scene that Black has saved White from throwing himself under a train. (The title of the play derives from the name of the passenger train – The Sunset Limited – that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles). Black has taken White back to his apartment and taken it upon himself to save White from any further attempts at suicide.
Beadle and Britton captivate throughout as we watch them steer their way through the ensuing debate. Nothing happens, beyond drinking coffee, or Black serving up a dish of reheated Creole cuisine from his fridge. But we are shaken to the core by their two opposing worlds, and our ideas are shattered by the crashing waves of their argument. Just as we think we are safely buoyed up by Black’s rolling tide of positivity, we are dangerously dragged back by the undertow of White’s nihilism. It is a raging debate, but comical too. “I long for the darkness” utters White, “If I thought that in death, I would meet the people I knew in life, I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate nightmare”. Britton beautifully seizes on the savagery of this pessimism but with a deadpan glee that brings out the humour. Beadle’s bible bashing counter arguments come with as many absurd and self-deprecating twists that remind us that we are being entertained rather than preached at.
The two actors’ natural performances transform McCarthy’s writing into a kind of poetry. Director Terry Johnson pitches them together in a slow dance that keeps the rhythm flowing and echoing in our heads long after we leave the theatre. The questions it has kicked up refuse to settle. After all – there are no real answers for them to settle on. But we, the audience, have the easier task: we can safely discuss these questions of life and death in the bar after the show, leaving the characters on the stage to make the life or death decisions.
The outlook is pitch-black and harsh, and seemingly a dead end, but nowhere else is a journey to nowhere such a pleasure.