“Ooooooooooh, oh.” A sound like a slow-puncture in space-time issues from James Earl Jones. This sound is cosmic, with a weightiness akin to gravity bending on one knee or an asthmatic planet rising from the sofa. But also earth-bound, like the lonely wind, with all the sadness of a depressed foghorn which has forgone warning ships in favour of mournfully asking them for some company in the mist. It resonates throughout this revival of Driving Miss Daisy, which comes at us from a counter-intuitively solitary place; and for all the inbuilt pathos of the script, moves so far in order to skirt warm-tummy sentimentality that it comes out looking slightly hollow-cheeked – and yet, for it, none the worse-for-wear.
Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play was made famous by the film starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, and the big name alongside Jones tonight is the Grande Dame Pétroleuse of British theatre Vanessa Redgrave. Severe, and sharp as ever, she produces a Miss Daisy that runs low on supplies of charisma and charm, cannily played almost as if she were a receding ghost in clean calico and tasteful lace. Indeed Redgrave seems almost to will the dwindling-away of this woman; spiny and wan, ineffectually fussy, and finally corpselike.
We might speculate that tonight the actor’s political sensibilities exert pressure on the character’s possiblities. There is little sympathy for Daisy’s age, even when her son played here by the suitably exasperated and Bilko-esque Boyd Gaines, addresses her as “a risk”. We get an intermittent, measuredly realist picture of a liberal whose participation in the structures of racism is blithe, continuous, and unabashedly unreflexive. Redgrave appears very alive to the undesirable possibilities of a part that is a minefield of liberal sentimentality; who could so easily engender feelings of soupy gratitude as she begins to magnanimously treat her black employee as a human, and who could be made to stand for progress of the most tolerant, burdensome, whitewashed kind.
In her hands Daisy continues to exert a kind of tyranny throughout. Her muffled gumming death-mask as she’s wheeled out for the final scene, in which Hoke spoons food into her mouth, less an ambivalent one between friendship and service, more a refusal to drop the contours of an unequal relationship under the encroaching shadow of that great supposed equaliser, death. Redgrave shears off the possibility of this final moment becoming a dewy-eyed rapprochement, and in doing so scores deeply Uhry’s point; that from indenture to chauffeur to the affective acts of the service industry, the pace of change is slow, uneven and not inevitable – and that the warm fuzzy feelings of a theatre audience mark no contribution whatsoever to its claims. It hardly needs saying that it’s not easy to find this scene uncomplicatedly touching, thanks to Redgrave’s masterful tolling of that final discordant note.
On occasion Wendall K Harrison’s projections are like being waterboarded in sepia-tone; scrolling handwriting on top of faded photographs make for a desktop publishing eyesore, large Rockwell-cum-Hopper knock-off projections of amityville suburban Americana, are on the twee side of satisying while carrying an appropriately lonely charge. John Lee Beatty’s set fairs better, the vast paint-stippled backdrops as urban decay provide a simple and effectively placeless backgrounding for the relationships, and a nice touch comes with the use of mechanical dial phones surreptitiously bolted to the vertical arch, whose patient whirr and click seem to slow time, and remind us of how, with the pleasures of liveness, time-travel might exist in the details. That technical challenge the car, is here a bench and a chair, with Hoke throwing his arms up around them in a sly nod to our imaginative burden, is classily supplemented by a sliding stage which has the bench wheel around at sedate speeds.
As the eponymous absence Hoke, Jones employs the world’s most famous baritone speaking voice to cluck and coo, to extract laughs with his sure comic timing, and richly enfold us in his honeyed boombox. He delivers his simple lines; never too resonant, never too homespun, playing the good-natured negro to a post-plantation tee. He is large and unquestioning, simple and earthy, dignified in his tragedy, cocooned in the past and walled-off from political possibility. We weep for his historical loneliness; just as we laugh when he takes the keys from the car to prevent Miss Daisy driving off; as we beam when it is revealed he has bought Miss Daisy’s old car. To drive all on his own! Lucky thing.
In his discussion of the car in the American imagination, the black scholar Paul Gilroy invokes the “driving miss daisy dyad”, a model of a relationship between chauffeur and chauffeured that to his mind updates “Hegels famous arrested conflict between master and slave”. Unsurprisingly the play has made its way to other forefronts of black consciousness – usually as something to be roundly satirised. The Californian rapper Ras Kass considers “drunk driving Miss Daisy”, while Compton’s Most Wanted prefer to entertain the pleasures of “drive-by Miss Daisy”. In his paean to interracial sex White Girl, the Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy’s particular vehicle of bodily transport for Miss Daisy is safer conducted away from the horizontal stretches of road.
“The car emerges as a place for listening” says Gilroy, “an intrepid, scaled-up substitute for the solipsistic world of the iPod. A kind of giant armoured bed on wheels that can shout the driver’s dwindling claims onto the world into dead public space at ever-increasing volumes.” According to the liberal narrative of human rights, things have changed; the right-to-ownership and recognition which Uhry places as the heart of emancipation has been, in its unequal way, fulfilled. Whether progress has been made is another question, and one that Driving Miss Daisy, as a thorny historical cameo brooch, an ivory miniature, leaves as its question. “Isn’t it wonderful, how things are changing?” bleats Miss Daisy. A couple of years back Jeezy’s Lamborghini was written-off in a collision with a taxi just outside Sean ‘Puffy’ Comb’s restaurant. “Ooooooooooh, oh”, he probably didn’t say. “Ooooooooooh, oh.”