Where does the anger in John Osborne’s 1956 drama come from? At one point Jimmy Porter, an educated member of England’s working class, recalls his father dying when he was 10, and him “pouring out all that was left of his life to one bewildered boy.” If decades of discontent transferred then and there into the shapeless and meaningless state of grief, it’s since found a solid target in Britain’s establishment culture. Jimmy, operating a sweet stall, is denied entry.
Maybe that once drew pathos. After #MeToo, Osborne’s vehicle for alienation – Jimmy’s outbursts against his upper-middle class wife Alison – is definitely conspicuous. This isn’t lost on director Annabelle Comyn. In her wary production for the Gate Theatre, the couple’s midlands flat appears against the unmasked stage wall, where the cast wander between microphones. Paul O’Mahony’s set less suggests a fully-atomised piece of realism as it does an ambitious deconstruction.
Tediously leafing through the newspapers, Jimmy (epically pompous in the shape of Ian Toner) is searching for someone to debate the politics and religion of the day. He doesn’t find a sparring partner in the amiable flatmate Cliff (Lloyd Cooney) or Alison (Clare Dunne), for whom he retrieves an insult from the dictionary: “pusillanimous”. Dunne’s Alison certainly isn’t lacking in courage, and when someone reads aloud the stage direction “she kisses him passionately,” she refuses.
Osborne’s play could always forgive men’s harassment of women but Comyn’s production has other ideas, reshaping the drama into an abusive marriage. To the unnerving drone of Tom Lane’s sound design, Jimmy’s domestic cycle, casting Alison as playmate one minute and agitator the next, turns like a mechanism of an emotional manipulation. More complicated still, she’s become hostage in her husband’s personal class war.
The production’s radical approach of protesting against Jimmy doesn’t always work. Alison’s visiting friend Helena (the redoubtable Vanessa Emme), for instance, aspires to save her but eventually jumps into bed with him as well. Nor is it clear where any admonishment of Jimmy lies; in performance, Toner can certainly push buttons but the contours of the character’s madness feel unmapped.
It’s still quite the gambit. Staging this at the Gate Theatre, recently the centre of harassment accusations against its former artistic director, feels like playing with fire. But when someone insists that Jimmy’s gone too far, the exposed walls of the stage suddenly flash with Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting, as if the building briefly had a voice. More than a revival, the production could act as an exorcism.
That corresponds with the ending, where instead of the play’s usual compromise we get something more revolutionary: new anger in Osborne’s play, coming from lifetimes of discontent that we’re only beginning to discover.
Look Back in Anger is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until March 24th. For more details, click here.