Tuesday, 26 February 2008

An English Tragedy - Watford Palace Theatre

An English Tragedy by Ronald Harwood
Watford Palace Theatre 15th Feb – 8th March
Directed by Di Trevis
Reviewed by Kevin O’Brien

It’s quite something to see a world premiere, the more so when the playwright is Ronald Harwood. If Harwood’s cv only mentioned ‘Author of The Dresser’ & ‘Screenwriter of The Pianist’ it would be impressive enough. As well as his Oscar for The Pianist and two other Academy Award nominations, he also won a 2007 BAFTA for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Harwood’s latest work visits some familiar themes with An English Tragedy – namely anti-semitism and World War II.

An English Tragedy deals with the true story of English fascist John Amery. Amery was a poor man’s Lord Haw-Haw, whose profound anti-semitism and deep contempt for Communism combined with his Harrow / Oxford background to make him a useful, if inconsequential, tool for the Third Reich. Amery recorded ten Nazi propaganda speeches, seven of which were broadcast on German radio. While Amery never approached Haw-Haw’s notoriety, his efforts were nevertheless sufficient for him to be charged with high treason, which forms the backdrop for the play. The central twist attempts to explain John’s motivation – namely that his distinguished father Leo was in fact a Jew himself, but had always concealed the fact in order to promote his political career in the 1930’s – including, according to the script, an afternoon spent with Hitler himself at the Fuhrer’s country retreat.
So, quite some story. And a discernible buzz in the auditorium. The iconic stage design painted a very literal picture for the evening. A huge blood-red Swastika dominated a black backdrop, with a ‘shadowed’ version of the Third Reich symbol forming the heavily raked stage upon which the action was played out.

The opening saw Amery’s parents seated, transfixed to one of John’s speeches. The speech was delivered through a haze of radio static, morse code and big band music. Very evocative, yet slightly stilted, and dare I say a little cumbersome in places - it felt as if the subject was sometimes being battered home to the audience, when a lighter touch would have been sufficient and indeed preferable.

Given Harwood’s track record, it may seem churlish to criticise. However I felt there were a few over-extended speeches and some slightly clunky scene-setting.

Against this, the quality of the dialogue was excellent. Richard Goulding in the lead role was superb as John Amery, but all involved acquitted themselves extremely well. The almost complete absence of props gave even greater focus to the performances, delivered with great authority by the entire cast. Stark lighting and period costumes combined with clever use of light and sound to be very reminiscent of wartime posters. These components, and the fact An English Tragedy is a true story, made suspension of disbelief easy.
Some snappy, not always black, humour helped to leaven the inevitably heavy subject matter - John Amery’s bisexuality and love for his Teddy Bear providing particularly good source.

A missed opportunity for me was a lack of focus on the irony of Leo’s fine reputation matched against John’s eminently dislikeable character. Even aside from his chaotic and extreme politics, John seemed disagreeable in practically every respect, while Leo appeared to be very well-thought of. Even as John met his grisly end it was difficult to sympathise with his character, regardless of how well Goulding played it.

Despite some limited reservations, it’s good to see Watford Palace Theatre staging new, reasonably radical productions like this. As such I’d certainly recommend it, but I can’t help wondering if its appeal will be somewhat limited – at least in its’ current form.

Richard Goulding (John Amery); Michael Fenton-Stevens (The Major)photo by Manuel Harlan.jpg

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