The stage is naked except for a small raised platform and a deflated air mattress. The ceiling glitters with fibre optic stars. Beneath these, a group of characters debate the nature of existence and reality, using theatre and the nature of performance as a broader metaphor for life (and death). Their conversation, which is studded with intentionally bad jokes and poetic digressions, swings back and forth but never settles.
First performed in 1962, James Saunders’ play was inspired by the story of the hermit of Great Canfield, a man who spent over three decades living in almost total isolation in a tiny hut. Was he some kind of contemporary saint or was he just a lonely old man prompted to reject the world after the young girl with whom he was fixated rejected him?
The play was the first ever directed by the Orange Tree’s Artistic Director, Sam Walters, and Saunders went on to have a strong association with the theatre throughout his life. Saunders’ next big project, according to the programme, was a stage adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Italian Girl, which seems apt as there is a lot of thematic overlap – but Murdoch usually embedded her philosophical exploring within a stronger structure than Saunders uses here.
The piece constantly comments on itself, picking itself apart. The performers remark on how they are going through the same motions, night after night, and on how nothing much has actually happened yet. “Yes, we get the metaphor,” is the weary reply. The director takes on the mantel of creator, the ultimate auteur, while the performers are deemed to be somnambulistic figures, neither fully awake nor asleep, with the exception of one man who eventually starts to merge with the figure of the hermit. There’s plenty of Pirandello here; Beckett and Ionesco too. You can almost see the spines lining Saunders’ library. Though frequently witty and undeniably smart, the play at times feels like a collection of his interests and obsessions, a primer in existential thinking, rather than anything more cohesive and relatable.
The cast cope well with the particular tone and rhythm of the play. Brendan Patricks is elegantly arrogant as Dust while Aiden Gillet succeeds in bringing out the spiritual quality of his director figure, Rudge. Roger Parkins’ character Meff, there primarily to provide relatively light relief, has dated far less well though he does his best with what he’s been given, and Holly Elmes, as Lizzie (one half of a pair of interchangeable identical twins), is required to do little beyond look almost permanently bewildered.
Unfortunately along with all this 1960s intellectual enquiry, the play comes with a hefty dose of 1960s chauvinism, complete with jokes about rape. Anthony Clark’s production attempts to counteract this by turning it into a period piece, complete with corduroy trousers and snug black turtlenecks, an ashtray quickly filling with the remnants of skinny cigarettes. But by rooting it so firmly in time, the light that shines around the edges of the text is dulled. The play becomes a fixed, rigid thing rather than something questing and illuminating. It’s easy to see what excited people about this play and how it came to influence other writers. At times it is still possible to feel the electricity of ideas at work, but in framing this as a heritage piece Clark has neutralised the play in more ways than one.