SAM GOLD RETHINKS THE VITUPERATIVE BRITISH CLASSIC
By HENRY EDWARDS
Roundabout’s Off-Broadway revival of John Osborne’s groundbreaking 1956 play, “Look Back in Anger,” at the Laura Pels Theatre, provides theatergoers with the opportunity to experience a vituperative classic credited by theatre historians for singlehandedly revitalizing British drama.
What makes the Roundabout effort even more intriguing is the choice of Sam Gold as director.
Hailed by Playbill magazine as one of the “latest members of a select new club: rising young Broadway directors,” Gold, 34, initially achieved success Off-Broadway with a series of ultra-controlled, low key directorial achievements (“Circle Mirror Transformation,” “The Aliens”). Moving uptown, he recently delivered another example of precision direction, the flimsy Alan Rickman vehicle “Seminar."
During rehearsals of the original "Look Back" at London's Royal Court Theatre, a press officer described playwright Osborne, then in his mid-twenties, as an “angry young man." A journalist picked up the term. As did Osborne who repeated it on BBC television two days later.
The idea of a dynamic, subversive group of novelists, poets, playwrights and philosophers who existed in a state of rage proved irrestible to the media, triggering a shortlived but influential media frenzy that prefigured the dramatic cultural changes that would occur in the 1960s.
It also had a direct effect on the West End stage of the 1950's. While drawing-room comedies by Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan and other writers like them were the order of day along with plays about an affluent bourgeoisie and their country homes or upper middle class suburbanites, “Look Back” was an entirely different matter.
For starters, its protagonist, Jimmy Porter, was a distinctly English version of a specific literary type, the romantic, solitary, self-pitying outsider figure that had surfaced for the first time in such 19th-century works as Byron’s “Manfred" and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
College educated and working-class, Jimmy Porter supported himself operating a market sweet stall—an enterprise that is surely well beneath his education and his upper middle-class wife Allison’s station in life.
This bitter, all-consuming heap of unfulfilled potential devotes his time to lashing out against all of the traditional social values espoused by the British upper classes and attacking English apathy and crying out for more emotion and enthusiasm. In true angry-young-man fashion, he also appears to advocate radical action to abolish the status quo, without being able to offer a positive alternative.
Not surprisingly, Osborne's temper tantrum opened to mainly negative notices. Nevertheless, Royal Court artistic director Geoege Divine chose to stand by the the play. And then something amazing happened. Four months after opening night, 5 million people watched an excerpt on BBC television. A complete performance on Granada TV was telecast a month later.
British viewers were accustomed to escapist entertainment populated by characters with hoity-toity, upper-class diction, and Osborne’s emotionally and politically charged portrayal of working-class people struggling with their existence proved a national shocker. From then "Look Back" was perceived nationally as the theatrical manifestation of the anger, frustration and concerns of the entire British post-war generation of young people bored with Britain's social injustice, devotion to rigid class privileges with their emphasis on social position and wealth and stagnant economic and intellectual life.
Although Britain had survived World War Two, catastrophic British defeats in Europe and Asia had destroyed the financial and economic independence that provided the country with the real foundation of its imperial system.
Then in 1956, the year of the birth of "Look Back," Britain with its wealth, prestige and authority already severely reduced and its domestic economy seriously weakened, confronted the nationalization of the Suez Canal. That Egypt, a former colony, ultimately achieved its goals provided a savage revelation of the country's financial and military weakness and a clear indicaton that Britain’s colonial tradition was experiencing a death rattle.
Osborne and the other angry young men loathed mediocrity and shared the conviction that Britain had descended into mediocrity and lost its way, and no one, including them, had any clue about what to do next.
The Observer newspaper's influential drama critic Kenneth Tynan put it this way: Jimmy Porter “represented the dismay of many young Britons ... who came of age under a Socialist government, yet found, when they went out into the world, that the class system was still mysteriously intact."
Other critics and commentators despised both the play and the world that Osborne chose to portray, but were forced to acknowledged that a powerful new theatrical voice had arrived.
“Look Back” would go on to help to sweep clear the stage upon which the far more extensive 1960's cultural revolution—in fiction, theatre, fashion, music, media, politics, art, film, gender, sexuality, public satire, and the end of censorship itself—would flourish.
Osborne's play takes place entirely in the Jimmy and Alison Porters' squalid, one-room attic apartment in the English Midlands which they share with a lodger, Jimmy’s friend, Cliff, an amiable, uneducated, working-class Welshman.
It was a habitat that shocked audiences of the time who had never seen a theatrical representation of squalor.
Bristling with contempt, Jimmy rails against Alison's upper middle-class family and Alison, herself. A weary Alison has become accidentally pregnant, but cannot bring herself to tell Jimmy. She has also invited her haughty actress friend Helena Charles to stay with them even though Jimmy despises Helena even more than he despises her.
Helena arrives and exposes the unsustainable madness of Alison's marriage and living situation, and Alision decides to leave.
In her absence, Jimmy starts an affair with Helena (seemingly proof that the badder the boy the easier it is to score).
Alison returns and explains to Helena that she lost the baby—one of Jimmy's cruelest speeches had expressed the wish that Alison would conceive a child and lose it—and the two women reconcile. Realizing what she's done is immoral, Helena decides to leave, and Jimmy to lets her go with a sarcastic farewell.
In the end Jimmy and Alison are together again, trapped in the dullness, repetition and everyday routines of their claustrophobic lives.
It's a distinctly British play, and Jimmy Porter is a distinctly British character. Unlike Americans, British audiences at that time simply knew that Jimmy belonged to the first generation of working-class and lower-middle class children to be allowed to attend a university, making up a very angry generation that had reached adulthood under the devestating twin shadows of the fear of nuclear anniliation and Britain's staggering imperial decline.
A year after its debut, "Look Back" traveled to Broadway. Unlike British theatergoers, New Yorkers grasped Jimmy was angry, but did know exactly what was bugging Jimmy Porter since the class system, the Suez crisis and everything else plaguing the character were not a part of American culture.
The passage of 55 years has rendered Jimmy Porter’s motivations even more incomprehensible for Americans, leaving director Gold with the daunting task of breathing life into a classic that had become dated and had never spoken to American audiences with the utmost clarity to begin with.
Additionally, by 2012 standards, the character's ferocious misogyny and grotesque egoism are are so unattractive and politically incorrect they hold the potential to make an audience's skin crawl.
Although Osborne has been credited with inspiring a series of plays and movies that represented British class realities and focused on working class issues and have been generically categorized as “kitchen sink dramas” Gold chose to dispense entirely with the kitchen sink.
In its place the director has thrust the play into the audience’s face, staging it on a five foot wide sliver of the stage apron in front of a looming black wall. Envisioning the Porter’s flat as a symbolic garbage dump in which claustrophobia reigns supreme, designer Andrew Lieberman has strewn the anemic playing space with dirty clothing, newspapers and uneaten food.
To reinforce his war against the stage realism that is part and parcel of the play, Gold drenches the audience in a bath of Brechtian white light and blasts it with the sounds of jazz. Not only are viewers going to be thrust headfirst into the claustrophobic world of the Porters, but they are also going to be bashed over the head once they get there.
Osborne’s text has also undergone significant revision, and the director has dispensed with any once topical references, along with the character of Allison’s father, transforming "Look Back: from a searing portrait of an angry young man of the 1950’s into a close-up view of a rageaholic in an extremely ugly marriage.
As to be expected, Gold’s revisionism provoked extreme reactions from the critical fraternity. According to its admirers, the production was “newly relevant,” “raw, exciting, heart-scorching,”startling,” “brutally honest” and “fascinating.”
On the other hand, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times wrote: “What is dismayingly absent from Mr. Gold’s torpid production, unfortunately, is any palpable sense of the fraught emotional connections among these characters. They may be living in one another’s pockets—and groping one another’s bodies—but they never seem truly to care about the contents of one another’s souls, despite Jimmy’s brutalizing attempts to seek solace for his frustrations by excavating a matching sense of alienation in his wife and his friend.”
Matthew Rhys (Jimmy Porter), Sarah Goldberg (Allison), Adam Driver (Cliff) and Charlotte Parry (Helena) do terrific work - as Gold's version of the characters if not Osborne's.
Jimmy Porter is especially difficult to portray, and Rhys, fearlessly, makes him repulsively boorish, so much so that when the lights went up at the end of the first act, some audience members, conditioned to empathize with a play's central character, were so appalled by his sledgehammer meanness they chose to depart.
Ulltimately, against all odds, Jimmy must somehow make audiences care (at least slightly) about his noisy, browbeating despair. If the character is to fascinate, the actor playing him must bristle with sensitivity and animal sexual appeal that make him irresistible. Those qualities are missing from Rhys’s characterization, leading to the speculation that the director wanted his in-your-face stylization and not the actor porraying Jimmy Porter to be the production’s real star.
Nevertheless, Rhys and Sarah Goldberg as his browbeaten wife do not let up for a second, fighting, grimacing and roaring their way through the play with extraordinary dedication. Adam Driver and Charlotte Perry prove the perfect support teaim. And by the time the play reaches its agonizingly hopeless conclusion, the despair and vitriol has proved so overwhelming that the experience overpowers the audience.
On its own terms, the brazen director and his incredibly hard working cast ultimately deliver a creepily effective contemporized approximation of Osborne's play that makes “Look Back” worth seeing.
"This is a hard play to swallow," Gold told an interviewer. "It divided audiences and critics then. It was a fight and I wanted to honor those very strong feelings. I thought that if the audience was implicated in the storytelling, it would help get at some of the danger in the material. Otherwise why do it?"