‘I shall try not to go off on a tangent. I do have a habit of that.’
Vanessa Redgrave says this about 20 minutes into Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938. She has been telling us about her family, about their friends, about their experiences in wars and life, introducing us to what is to come over the next 2 hours as she guides us through some of the diaries, biographies and poems of this fascinating collection of characters. And that introduction certainly has plenty of tangents. This is stream of consciousness, not as formalism but as how people often actually speak, with no sentence ending before at least three more have been stuffed within its bounds, and no character introduced without an anecdote about their father. But while this is certainly not always the clearest introduction, the casualness gives it a sense of safety, for while you may miss or forget who one of the players in the vast network is, or the connections between them, you are always safe in the knowledge that your host is there with a gentle and rambling reminder.
While I rather enjoy this opening – it reminds me of a rambling catch up with a friend or one of my nan’s well worn stories (but with rather more off-hand references to a starry selection of friends and acquaintances), I can also see how it can drag, especially as it occasionally feels like you have to dig through a thicket of branching stories to keep up with what’s actually going on. But whatever one thinks of this beginning it is invariably better than what comes after. Most of the rest of the show is made up of three performers (Robert Boulter, Lucy Doyle and Paul Hilton, all doing their best with the material) embodying the people Redgrave has introduced us to. The shift of tone is jarring to say the least – compared to the chatty tone of the beginning (Redgrave has the kind of perfect charismatic friendliness that has audience members around me nodding and humming in encouragement, as if talking to her over a cup of tea) the performers seem Actorly with a capital A. This is not necessarily their fault – the contrast of tones and the fact that for the most part speech is lifted directly from the characters’ own writings creates the feel of the most trite idea of a 30s drawing room drama.
In fact it is ironic that one of the most successful scenes of the play is a re-enactment of Redgrave’s parents rehearsing the play in which they first met. It is the most enjoyable part of the show as it is thoroughly aware of its own silliness, with repeated references to technical difficulties and the young ingénue calling out to her lover (‘Dick!’, ‘Oh, Dick!’, ‘Oh, dear Dick!’) It’s just a shame that so much of the show around it seemed to fall pretty squarely into the tone that is being sent up here.
All of the performers are successful at points in breaking out of this slightly stilted mode, especially Hilton (possibly because it’s easier to break out of as an Austrian revolutionary than a holidaying poet). Clear attempts are made to show the human, mundane side of these character’s lives in times of political turbulence, which often works, but also often add to the heightened falseness, with performers having to telegraph their characters as they describe events at odds with their actions.
It’s a shame because there’s plenty of stuff that could be great in the show – many of the stories are fascinating, Redgrave is obviously passionate about the subject and good at sharing that passion, and there’s something compelling about the odd mix of fiction and reality onstage (a moment which felt like it held a lot of the promise of this is when Hilton, playing Corin Redgrave, refers to his family, gesturing to Boulter, playing a youthful Michael Redgrave, and the actual Vanessa Redgrave sitting at the back of stage). It mainly seems that the show needs a rigorous (and potentially slightly ruthless) editor – the tangential dramaturgy that feels charming in an autobiographical speech soon becomes grating in the more performed sections and the fascinating stories end up being concealed by the mass of what’s going on onstage. And many sections are just far too long – the final speech, a reading of an speech written not long after the Munich Agreement by Thomas Mann, would be far more moving and insightful if some cuts made it easier to stay engaged throughout it. The same could be said of the show as a whole.
Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 plays at the Ustinov Studio, Bath until 3rd August. More info here.