A Pyrrhic Victory
When it first exploded onto the scene before an unsuspecting British public in 1956, John Osborne’s semi-autobiographical “Look Back In Anger” was a breath of fresh air, one that would go on to change the face of British theatre. Railing against the dominant culture in theatre at the time, as well as the mainstream political and social norms of the day, Osborne’s birthing of the angry young man dealt in punk transgression long before punk was ever dreamed off. Now, over sixty years later, The Gate Theatre’s meta-theatrical interrogation of “Look Back In Anger” sees director Annabelle Comyn appropriating Osborne’s text and reimagining it to highlight its inherent and obvious misogyny. If appropriating historical works for social and political reform is already a divisive issue, as recent events in The Manchester Art Gallery will testify, Comyn’s “Look Back In Anger” has much to contribute to that debate. Including a timely reminder that when it comes to political interrogations on stage, Brecht isn’t always the best way to go unless you’re prepared to go all the way.
Under Comyn’s direction, Osborne’s tale remains intact. The belligerent Jimmy Porter, his long suffering wife Alison, Jimmy’s live-in friend Cliff, and Alison’s actress friend Helena, all find themselves crammed into a one room, attic flat listening to Jimmy’s endless rants. Sunday morning pipes and papers for the men, slaving over an ironing board for the women, unspoken pregnancies, and secret attractions, all help fuel the pressure cooker that is their lives. But soon it’s all going to explode, and something’s got to give. What it is that gives Comyn reimagines, taking the ending in another direction altogether, courtesy of some beguilingly simple stagecraft.
Throughout, Comyn’s interrogation employs a Brechtian shifting of the theatrical frame, as well as of the relationship between actor and character. With both being used to comment on, and fracture, the use of realism in theatre, as well as on Osborne’s script, the audience is made distant from any realist engagement. Utilising a set within a set, superbly designed by Paul O’Mahony, Comyn frames Osborne’s realist attic within a second meta-theatrical set replicating a backstage area. Here actors walk, talk, dress and undress, and read stage directions from hand held scripts as if in a radio play, highlighting the artificiality of everything that’s being presented on stage. As well as foregrounding the choices being made by the writer, actors, and characters. A simple technique involving cast members in the outer set reading stage directions aloud to actors involved in a scene proves to be supremely clever and deeply effective, even if it doesn’t reveal that much more than we already knew. In response to the stage directions the actors either execute them precisely, or choose to ignore them to create alternative choices that are juxtaposed with the text. The effect wonderfully highlights the narrative choices Osborne made by cleverly offering feasible alternatives, for the women characters at least. Insightful and clever, Comyn’s approach achieves a kind of victory in places. Yet ultimately it becomes something of a pyrrhic victory.
Primarily because playing with the frame becomes a one trick pony, one that serves to isolate Comyn’s gender interrogation from the rest of the elements in Osborne’s script. Once isolated, the rest begins to feel like theatrical dead air, or worse, white noise. Up to the point where you almost dread when someone starts another monologue if it doesn’t have a gender focus. Questions concerning class, colonialism, education, post war Britain, culture and politics, to name but a few, are rendered almost irrelevant, then endured, for the most part, as tedious tirades that distract from the central investigation into misogyny. In the end the experience feels like panning for gold in a stream in an old western movie. While there are unquestionably nuggets to be found, there seems to be an awful lot of silt that has to be waded through to find them.
All of which impacts on performance. With uneven accents reinforcing the distance between character and actor, the space between both is not always successfully negotiated. If Jimmy, immortalised by a brooding Richard Burton in the 1959 film version directed by Tony Richardson, was the quintessential representative of the angry young man, Ian Toner’s Jimmy is more of a petulant little child. Working, as he is, under entirely different conditions, Toner has the unenviable task of delivering rant after tedious rant, with many drained of their power or relevance, thereby making Jimmy far less compelling. Perhaps re-presenting Jimmy as petulant and powerless was always the point. Yet this results in Jimmy’s physical violence failing to convince. His mental cruelty might pack a punch, but when it comes to the threat of violence Jimmy displays about as much a sense of danger as a child hurling a toy in a hissy fit across a playpen.
Similar issues affect Clare Dunne’s Alison, who strikes the one sustained, pained note throughout, that soon becomes piercing in its repetitiveness. Speaking as a victim of Jimmy’s abuse, the sense of a personal Alison soon gets lost to the political points being made. In this regard, Dunne is far more successful negotiating the space Comyn opens up for her in the reimagined retelling, where greater agency and choice is made available to her. Only Lloyd Cooney as the working class, Irish lay about, Cliff, and Vanessa Emme and the independent Helena, successfully negotiate the artificiality involved, with both remaining deeply convincing and utterly engaging throughout.
Feeling, at times, like a durational, non-dramatic performance, “Look Back In Anger” repositions a classic work by an old master to make a political point. Whether this is seen as theatre as politics, or theatre as propaganda, either way, the performance is the thing. Comyn might be looking back in anger, but what she brings forward is often hard work and heavy-handed, revealing too few gems for all the effort so obviously put in. One where a Brechtian approach highlights latent misogyny, but too often misses more than hits when it comes to everything else. Disengaging the audience from the realist frame might yield some rewards, but having to engage with a far less explosive “Look Back In Anger,” one that sees too much of too little happening in between its interrogated moments, might prove costly as it won’t appeal to everyone. Even so, “Look Back In Anger” remains a brave and ambitious undertaking.
“Look Back In Anger” by John Osborne, directed by Annabelle Comyn, runs at The Gate Theatre until March 24th
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