Sunday, 31 March 2013

A wonderland of ideas

It could be read as a sign of the times that, when the news of the demise of Richard Griffiths broke a couple of days ago, the headlines read, over and again, that the “Harry Potter actor” had died.

It is highly doubtful that, no matter how lucrative were those films personally, Griffiths himself would have viewed them as his best or most important work.

That probably wouldn’t have been last year’s West End revival of Neil Simon’s bitter comedy, The Sunshine Boys, in which he starred to great effect opposite the bundle of combustible energy that is (Batman Returns actor!) Danny DeVito.

More likely, one might think, would be the cult classic Withnail and I, and both stage and film versions of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, both of which have been seen by large audiences, not simply a certain, limited class of theatregoer.

Not, I hasten to note, that there is anything wrong with Harry Potter – books and films alike are thoroughly delightful.

To be fair, this is hardly new. When John Gielgud departed life’s stage in 2000, the Daily Star marked his passing with headline: ‘Butler in Arthur dies’.

But it was akin to reading that the West End production of John Logan’s new play, Peter and Alice, was really just a big Bond reunion, since the author had written Skyfall (amongst many big screen hits), and the stars were M and Q.

It could hardly have been further from 007.

In the introduction to the script, Logan writes that, “many years ago”, in a biography of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Lewis Carroll’s Alice, he’d read that: “On June 26 1932 Alice opened the Lewis Carroll exhibition at Bumpus, the London bookshop. Beside her was Peter [Llewellyn] Davies, the original Peter Pan.”

And that is where Logan begins, wondering what they might have said to each other.

Having inspired Rev Charles Dodgson (Carroll) and JM Barrie to pen their classic children’s tales, both went on to face tragedy in their adult lives.

Having lost both parents to cancer, Peter lost a brother and any remaining childhood innocence in the mud of Flanders, with another brother apparently ending his own life a few years later.

For Alice, her own lost boys were two of three sons dying on the Western Front.

From icons of childhood to pained adulthood.

Logan’s play explore the legacy of being the models for those icons; the pressures it might bring, unable to escape that.

For Alice, it’s a blessing; a distraction from the tragedy. For Peter, a dreadful reminder of innocence lost; of the pain of growing up.

When the shallow set of a dusty storeroom in a bookshop rises to reveal a vast version of a toy theatre, with proscenium arch decorated by illustrations from the two books, Alice and Peter are joined not only by Dodgson and Barrie, but also by the characters that they gave their names to, and Logan can embark on a journey of memory.

Challenged by their muses, we explore the two authors; possessive and both sad and bitter in unhappy adult lives.

The question of whether Dodgson had paedophilic inclinations is not a new one. Logan deals with it carefully – it cannot be ignored when seen through today’s sensibilities.

If one wishes to see it through the prism of pop culture, it could perhaps be suggested that Dodgson here is reminiscent of Michael Jackson – a desperately unhappy adult who spends time with children in order to claim or reclaim the joy of childhood.

However, he also has Alice ask Peter whether Barrie “molested” him or his four brothers.

And here we have one of Logan’s ideas. ‘No’, responds Peter. Not physically.

But how much can what these authors did, using children as unwitting templates for something from which they could never escape, a form of abuse?

It’s worth noting here that there are vastly differing views of Dodgson’s apparent fondness for photographing young girls, which is touched on in the play.

While just over 50% of his surviving photographic work is of young girls, 60% of his portfolio is missing or destroyed, so it’s not possible to say with certainty what the rest contained – and his sketches show a much more varied subject matter.

It has also been said that, at that time, child nudes were a popular and mainstream Victorian art form – part of the ‘Victorian child cult’ and even appearing on Christmas cards, so there is a danger of seeing Dodgson through 21st-century eyes.

What is equally interesting, though, is that at around the same time as he invented the stories of Alice, his diaries became full of the rather Calvinistic view of himself as a “vile and worthless” sinner, which may possibly be reflected in his desire for ‘innocent’ companionship.

Anyway, that’s one of the questions that Logan doesn’t pretend to be able to answer.

The performances are superb. Ben Wishaw as Peter is awkward and angular and painfully vulnerable and angry.

At first stiff and of stiff upper lip, Judi Dench’s Alice succumbs eventually to a heart-rending sob as she remembers her lost sons. But her ability to also convey the Alice of childhood without it ever seeming cloying or false is an indicator of just why she is such a superb actor.

To be honest, I don’t know what I expected of the play. I bought tickets because Dench is on a list of actors that I have told The Other Half he must see.

The play itself turns out to be a challenging, intelligent and fascinating piece.

But back to that dumbing down.

The obsessive need to popularise everything is an infantilisation of thought. It’s at the heart of what has happened to the country’s public discourse over the last few decades, which is a major reason why it matters.

While there can be genuine benefits if it means, for instance, that someone decides to go and see the play because of that Bond connection, it also brings with it a concomitant infantilisation of thought.

That saw senior theatre critic Michael Billington of the Guardian not only try out a rather patronising joke at the expense of those he imagines to be thus mired in the pop culture world – “Anyone hoping to see Q and M will find themselves constantly confronted by Q and A” – as though people really cannot differentiate between actors playing different roles, but then himself complained at the lack of easy gratification by asserting that Logan’s play neither offers any “revelations” nor “shocks or startles by its insights”, as though this were actually the latest installment in the Bond franchise and such things were the necessary intellectual equivalents of all the pyrotechnics and car chases.

For Billington, the performances are the pleasure: perhaps it was he who had turned up expecting merely to see “Q and M”.

The performances are very much a pleasure, but so is seeing question after question, theme after theme, idea after idea revealed, like the layers of an onion being peeled back. And all ready for the audience to take away with them and mull at greater length.

Peter and Alice might be short at just a single, 90-minute act, but is far from flimsy.

There is nothing wrong with popular culture – a cultural diet can include Carry On films as well as Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean that we get all relativist about it, any more than trying to compare Abba and Beethoven.

It all seems to say: ‘we can’t do grown-up culture by itself any more: it’s too difficult.’ Or perhaps it’s simply that the easier something is, the more it sells.

In true chicken and egg fashion, it’s hard to know which came first – media reporting in this way or the public demanding it.

That production of The Sunshine Boys was met with some reviews that saw eyes rolled metaphorical at the physical contrast between the leads, decrying it as rather passé.

Well indeed. Simon’s piece is about a faded Vaudeville double act – so the physical contrast was precisely the sort of ‘obvious’ comic device that would have been around at the time.

The casting was done with this in mind – not as a pretence that, ‘oh, ha ha, we’ve thought of something new’.

The lack of understanding of something as simple as basic context was irritating and frustrating. It was an attempt at ‘clever’ reviewing without the understanding to be so.

At it seems to be part of a circle that include the ‘Harry Potter actor’ headlines, the desire for answers instead of the questions that provoke at least an effort at mental aerobics.

You never find yourself thinking like this in childhood.

Peter and Alice is on at the Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London until 1 June. A limited number of tickets are available on the day for £10.

The script will be published shortly by Oberon Books.

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