The Browning Version/Swansong

Terence Rattigan and Anton Chekhov, translated by Stephen Mulrine
A Peter Hall company production presented by The Theatre Royal, Bath
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

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The Browning Version premiered in 1948 and Swansong in Moscow in 1888 - worlds apart, yet the theme of both plays is a man at the end of his career looking back on his past life and regretting the direction it has taken and what has been lost on the way. But there the similarity ends. The two characters involved could not be more dissimilar, yet Peter Bowles takes on both with such convincing and emotional performances that towards the end of Rattigan’s play it was hard to suppress the tears.

In Swansong Svetlovidov, an elderly actor, wakes up in an empty theatre after his final performance “roaring drunk , and not even my birthday” and Bowles makes extravagant use of theatrically rounded vowels and rolling ‘R’s as, toga-clad, he staggers around the deserted stage bemoaning a career which he began as a serious actor but which turned him into a comic clown. The appearance of his old Prompter (James Laurenson) encourages him to relive some of his best moments and there are many Shakespearean quotes, as well as those from ‘Agamemnon’, before they bestride their imaginary horses and ride off into the sunset - or, in this case, to Moscow.

Reputedly written in an hour, and only twenty minutes long, it is beautifully and sensitively performed and there is fun to be had, but this is just a sliver of a Chekov play, and it is Rattigan’s superbly crafted narrative, set in the tightly enclosed world of a public school, which totally involves the audience and has them hanging on every word.

Here Bowles is schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris, a brilliant classical scholar, but a disciplinarian known as ‘The Himmler of the Lower Fifth’, about to be replaced by a younger man. Stiffly correct and conscientious, he is convinced that all his pupils dislike him, and the surprising and thoughtful gift from one of the boys - a copy of Browning’s translation of Agamemnon - “Perhaps the greatest play ever written” - cracks his English reserve and causes him to break down in tears in “a shameful exhibition of emotion”.

Director Peter Hall’s meticulous attention to detail ensures that every gesture, every pause, every movement augments the dialogue and, in what might be the emotionally draining performance of his life, Bowles goes from pedantic correctness and passive acceptance of his fate to being visibly shaken on discovering he will have no pension, but that is not the final blow. His initial pleasure at the boy’s gift is cruelly shattered by dismissive taunts from his snobbish wife, played with a brittle sarcasm by Candida Gubbins while still managing to give glimpses of her own hurt. Disappointed with both her marriage and her husband’s future prospects, she has been having an affair with Frank Hunter, the popular science master, and his rejection shatters her world too.

Charles Edwards excels as Frank, his easy relationship with the boys contrasting strongly with ‘The Crock’s reputation, and there is some solace in his offer of the hand of friendship.

There is an excellent performance from James Musgrave as Taplow, the public schoolboy with a heart and with exactly the right mixture of confidence and deference for authority, but with a teenager’s restless inquisitiveness.

One of the most moving moments occurs when Crocker-Harris, with impressive dignity, insists on his right to the final speech at the coming prize-giving ceremony - not exactly a happy ending, but giving hope for his future.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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