‘The Entertainer’, Garrick Theatre, London, Saturday 27 August 2016
Another birthday – 38 today! Fantastic.
Another play – we’re up to 14 now! Fabulous
Another state-of-the-nation drama. Ah…right…
And not just any old state-of-the-nation drama, folks. “The Entertainer” is the epitome, the Ur text, the Mitochondrial Eve of the species. As Billington ominously put it in his description: “If ever there was a state-of-the-nation play, this is it”.
Regular readers will know that the state-of-the-nation play has started to bring me out in a state of nervous agitation. They have become the internal enemy of the #theatre101 challenge, generating the least enjoyable experiences. As I’ve already written, the low point was Waste at the National.
They must present a very difficult interpretative challenge to theatrical producers. One can stage a version like Waste that stays close to the original text and serious tone, but is subsequently weighed down by its own sense of self-importance. What was once new and shocking now seems irrelevant, if it registers at all. The Stage’s Natasha Tripney put this very well in her description of Waste as “remote rather than resonant”.
An alternative strategy is to downgrade the weightier elements and focus more on the interplay of characters and the comedic elements, as with Heartbreak House in Brighton. You get the laughs with this approach, but little that will last in the memory.
This production of The Entertainer seemed to do a bit both at the same time and ended up doing neither particularly well.
The Entertainer is set in London, 1956, the year of the Suez Crisis, an event made for a state-of-the-nation play. Post-war Britain is struggling to re-define itself. As the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, the country had “lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. Into this vacuum leapt the Macmillan government, attempting to re-impose an element of control over post-colonial Egypt. Ultimately, he was forced to back down in humiliating fashion.
This sense of a once-great but fading power being discarded by a frighteningly new world is paralleled in the shape of Archie Rice, the entertainer of the title. A musical-hall legend back in the days of black and white, Archie’s routines are tired and out-of-date, leading to a growing bitterness against this fancy, new, multi-coloured world.
The problems arose when this already fairly obvious premise was pressed home with such constant force it reached an Ollie Plimsolls-level of audience patronisation.
“You can see the parallels, can’t you? Can’t you? Look, here they are. Now, I don’t mean to patronise you – patronise means to talk down to – but here is another parallel!”
As a result, I was seriously impressed by Kenneth Branagh’s athleticism but not much else.
It occurs to me now that this is the first time I’ve mentioned that Branagh was the lead of this performance. The greatest stage actor of his day and all I remember are his dance moves (and his strangely camp-cockney barrow-boy accent, but the least said about that the better).
Like other state-of-the-nation plays, it takes something to re-capture what made them once so brilliant and bracing. Whatever that something is, it was not be found at the Garrick on this warm summer afternoon.
14 down – 87 to go.