The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro, adapted by Barney Norris
Out of Joint, with Royal & Derngate, in association with Oxford Playhouse
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Ishiguro’s novel of regret, loss and above all duty was portrayed beautifully not only in the book but also in the Merchant Ivory film with Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, yet never so immediate and emotionally moving as in this stage adaptation.
To see before us this man, who has never allowed himself to have any feelings except duty to his employer, tears at the heart strings with sympathy, sorrow and frustration that he cannot let himself go in any way, with dignity and discretion being the watchwords for his life, a life at the end full of regrets. This man is Stevens: butler to Lord Darlington and born to this life with his father, butler before him, instructing him in the essential qualities for the job, dignity being of paramount importance. His duty is instilled so completely into his mind that he even leaves his dying father with the words, “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” before rushing back to be of service to his employer.
The action takes place over two time frames, pre-war and post-war, both played at the same time almost as if in a parallel universe and with many characters doubling up, yet all managed so expertly and smoothly that there seems to be no confusion. Designer Lily Arnold’s huge gilt-framed sliding panels hide or reveal characters waiting in the wings, so to speak, waiting to play their part in Stevens’s memories. Mirrored reflections and mists add to the mysterious and slightly eerie feeling that we are looking into a past only half-remembered. All achieved with smoke and mirrors, you might say!
As for the ‘almost’ love story, Niamh Cusack, superb as the housekeeper Kenton, gives him plenty of clues as to her feelings for him but he seems unaware of any innuendo. The stocktaking she regards as a cosy get-together over cocoa he states is an efficient way to manage the household. Even her attempt to get some response by revealing her marriage proposal from another fails to get him going, yet in Stephen Boxer’s exceptional performance it is obvious from the rigidity of his face and body that he doesn’t want to lose her yet cannot bring himself to say so. Cusack’s beautifully balanced performance takes in mischievousness and teasing, but not afraid to state her mind when instructed to dismiss two serving maids simply because they are Jewish.
The play begins almost at the end with the Lord's ‘appeasement’ beliefs discredited and the house now belonging to an American, emphasising the complete change the war has wrought on society, the almost collapse of the class system and subservience not a requirement. Stevens even has the loan of a car to undertake his journey to Cornwall to meet up again with Kenton, but this is not a happy ever after story, although there is humour along the way. This is sadness and a regret at what he has missed in life.
Directed with fluidity by Christopher Haydon, performed superbly by an excellent cast and even including a jibe at the electorate which could be relevant today, this is a production not to be missed.