Rose Tremain, adapted by Matthew Francis
Salisbury Playhouse

Production photo

Rose Tremain, prize-winning author of ten novels and four short story collections, admits an element of confusion about Merivel, hero of her 1988 novel Restoration, newly adapted for the stage by Matthew Francis in a version which received its world premier this month at Salisbury Playhouse.

Thus, I am ready to confess a great sense of confusion myself about Francis' present production, both in terms of the play and the story. In fact, I am not at all sure of what Restoration is about.

Certainly it features a strong performance by Nicholas Boulton as (the restored) Charles II and a formidable tour de force from Tom Burke as Robert Merivel himself - barely off the stage throughout the long (or so it seems) performance.

That said, I am at a loss to comprehend why Tremain relates this work to Thatcherism. Granted, she finds a certain link between "the modern climate of selfishness and greed" and the material obsessions which apparently occupied people's minds after the Restoration of the Monarchy.

Yet Thatcher has been gone this ten years and Blairism, followed by Brown's Law, has held sway almost as long, if not longer. To be sure Merivel is obsessed with the luxurious world of king and prosperity. Yet was there ever a time when the temptations of the flesh and the purse were not great?

Had I not read the author's notes, I am sure I would not have recognised any censorious link between this play and our own materialistic times. I am sure about that for the simple reason that I rarely read author's notes before a performance and, indeed, did not do so on this occasion.

Which perhaps explains why I watched this performance with an increasing sense of isolation and estrangement? Bertolt Brecht, of course, would have approved of that since, in his view, it was exactly how the message of plays should be got across to audiences!

Alas, not to this one - and while Rose Tremain clearly feels she has made a valid point in her novel, I am not at all sure that it was a protestant God who kept the popular thought obediently tuned so much as the blunt authority of Cromwellian rule.

Sad to say, the disappointment doesn't end with the story, even when one has decided what that is. For while individual performances are generally of a high standard, such is not the case with conception or design.

Colin Falconer's settings generally leave the actors on their own. Many scenes are played out on a virtually empty stage while those that are not leave some of us at least in disbelief. Victims of the bubonic plague, for example simply rise and exit - sans machina!

Where, I am tempted to ask, saving the actors' professionalism, is the theatre in all this?

"Restoration" continues at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 25 April.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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