Farewell to the Theatre

Richard Nelson

Hampstead Theatre

From 01 March 2012 to 07 April 2012

Review by Philip Fisher

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Set in 1916, Farewell to the Theatre is one of those experiences that slowly grows on you. During 1¾ hours, very little happens but strong emotions are deeply felt in a fashion that is at times reminiscent of Chekhov. In reality, the style is almost certainly more specifically intended by Richard Nelson to emulate the work of the figure at the play's centre, Harley Granville-Barker.

Granville-Barker (1877-1946) was an amazing polymath—writer, director, actor, critic and academic. Today, he is best known as a playwright whose work always surprise and delights, although his prefaces to Shakespeare should be better publicised. He was also, as this homage demonstrates, an inventive producer (director) in the Peter Brook mould.

Ben Chaplin does a good job of understatement in portraying a man steeped in theatre but still slightly scared of life. The name of this work borrows that of the writer's own play, which amazingly did not premiere (at the Rose in Kingston) until almost a century after its composition.

The drama takes place in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1916, Shakespeare's tercentenary and the year in which Granville-Barker's Farewell was written.

A spartan boarding house run by Jemma Redgrave's long-suffering Dorothy, a two-timed academic’s widow is a resting place for eccentric, expatriates Brits.

While the central figure is on an extended holiday from war-torn Europe, his colleagues have all been across the pond for considerably longer. They really are a rum bunch. Jason Watkins sympathetically plays Frank, a witty Dickens specialist who revels in delivering Pickwickian monologues when he is not doing Sydney Carton but struggles to come to terms with real life.

Beatrice, played by Tara Fitzgerald, is a louche former actress with tragic, vampish tendencies smitten by a duplicitous American student, recent LAMDA graduate William French as vain Charles.

That leaves the family, Dorothy's luckless brother Henry, Louis Hilyer and hopeless cousin George, Andrew Havill. They appear to be competing for a single academic job with the incumbent Henry fighting a perpetual losing battle to prevent an odious head of department from unseating and humiliating him.

While war is waged far out of sight in Europe, this American backwater witnesses much smaller scale events. College politics and theatrical gossip each play major roles, as rather more surprisingly does sex in an era when it was not supposed to happen outside marriage.

Somehow, without ever breaking beyond a canter or introducing significantly dramatic events, under Roger Michell's direction Farewell to the Theatre proves to be a contemplative, rewarding way to spend an evening, especially for those who enjoy reflecting on theatrical life and history.