There’s a gentle, tip-toe quality about Richard Nelson’s new play. Intentionally thin on plot, it’s less concerned with “doing” than “being” and allows its characters’ stories to unfold in a delicate rippling fashion. It’s not exactly ‘about’ the life of the innovative actor-manager, playwright and director, Harley Granville-Barker, either, rather it’s a play in which Granville-Barker features as a character. If anything it’s more concerned with the condition of the English in exile and the potency of theatre.
Granville-Barker is marking time at a boarding house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1916. Having left behind the collapse of his marriage (a divorce is pending) and the trauma of the war in Europe he finds himself witness to a number of private tragedies and passions. He’s disillusioned, frustrated and contemplating giving up theatre for good – it is at this point in his life he writes the one-act play with which Nelson’s shares its name – but he can’t quite let go of the theatre, not yet, nor it of him.
The majority of the characters are, like Granville-Barker, English escapees. There’s Beatrice, a middle-aged actress deep in the midst of an infatuation with a young American student; the genial Frank Spraight, a renowned Dickens specialist; Henry, a professor at the local college, and his widowed sister Dorothy, who runs the boarding house at which Granville-Barker is staying. They each have their longings, they all have their regrets.
An unseen but much discussed production of Twelfth Night at the college where Henry teaches forms the backdrop to the play. Granville-Barker watches as Shakespeare’s comedy becomes the source of much toxic academic wrangling and acute social humiliation. It seems his presence has alarmed one of the resident professors and he, in turn, has taken it out on the hapless Henry. None of this adds up to very much but it is, at times, gently compelling, full of quiet Chekhovian melancholy. There are other times however where a little bit more in the way of momentum would be appreciated, more incident, more ‘doing.’ As it is Granville-Barker’s one moment of physical and emotional connection feels like a thunder clap on an otherwise still day.
Ben Chaplin excels at playing English men of a certain stripe – sardonic, intelligent, reserved – and he’s superb as Granville-Barker, a watchful, contemplative man, his words carefully measured. Jason Watkins is hugely endearing as Spraight, his chipper exterior concealing a deep sadness of his own; both men are adept at putting up shields, guarding themselves emotionally. Tara Fitzgerald makes for a giddy Beatrice, near-intoxicated by the blood-rush of feeling for her pretty young American while Jemma Redgrave is alternatively nervy and bold as the permanently black-clad Dorothy.
The final scene in which the characters take solace in the performance of a traditional mummers’ play, wearing dressing-up box costumes and wielding wooden swords under a bright American sun – revelling in theatre in one of its oldest forms – feels slightly tepid and tacked-on rather than in any way revelatory or transformative.