Anna – February 4, 2005 – Apollo Theatre – London, UK
When Robert (Patrick Stewart) and John (Joshua Jackson), the two male actors solely featured in the West End revival of acclaimed American playwright David Mamet’s early effort, “A Life in the Theatre,” first walk onto the stage, an instant dichotomy is set up between polar opposites – a young man vs. an older one; a newbie vs. an old hand; a reserved, cryptic persona vs. a gregarious, flamboyant personality. Their play has finished and they are done for the night. So they engage in a halting conversation before parting ways -Is one hungry? Was one good in a scene? What will the other do next tonight? Yet underneath, as in most Mamet dialogues, a furtive exploration occurs between the two, a search for rhythm and rhyme in their world, the stage, and order and reason in their lives, as men. Perched at opposite ends of the performing – and living – spectrum, one wonders: Who is each of these gentlemen? And why are they hell-bent on this life in the theatre?
What ensues in the following well-paced 84 minutes is a series of short scenes and brief vignettes – 26 in all – that drops the audience into random, roughly chronological moments from that first, hesitant conversation to a last, eerily similar and yet changed one at play’s end. It turns out those conversations are bookends bracketing an exploration of two concurrent acting paths – one evolving, one devolving, simultaneous. And though the production is billed primarily as a comedy, a more bittersweet dramatic tension lurks beneath the funny.
Interspersed throughout the play are varied set-pieces, snippets of on-stage performance of different productions (seen from the vantage point of behind the two players as they emote out towards a fictional audience) including a wartime battle melodrama; intrigue, adultery and betrayal set in the South around an office desk; a sick elderly man in a wheelchair assisted by his young and optimistically earnest companion in an old house; two survivors of a shipwreck, barely subsisting on a raft adrift on the sea; and two doctors surgically working on a patient in an operating room.
Amidst these “on-stage” sequences, the audience is dropped into random fly-on-the-wall moments between Robert and John as they advance from off-stage jaunty exchanges between mentor and pupil (an amusing workout scene with Robert on barbells offering up advisory clichés and John, half-listening and focused on going through his yoga paces, deferentially receiving his counsel) through progressive backstage instances of a growing disconnect (a short, post-scene swordplay instruction, while dressed in Medieval chain-armor garb, that reveals an emerging weary exasperation on John’s part and a faint sense of last hurrah bravado on Robert’s) through to restrained dressing room face-offs (a run-through of lines for an upcoming play showcases both John’s restive frustration and Robert’s garrulous posturing to great effect).
It is a subtle pendulum shift of personalities from start to finish. The footing shifts as the dynamics evolve – a rise and a fall, coinciding – and a fine balance is necessary to keep the continuity generating forward. From the moment John uproariously misses his cues to Robert’s off-stage, forlorn crying during an inadvertent viewing of John’s empty-house stab at Shakespearean soliloquy to Robert’s perhaps not-so-inadvertent “slipped razor” in the face of his missed lines in a hospital scene, during which John simply walks off stage in disgust, the shifts move quick from comedy to pathos and then back again.
Stewart manages to maneuver ahead with an easy deftness, his extensive theatre-training as a Royal Shakespeare Company thespian and his recent Olivier Award-winning turn in his one-man show based on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” serving him brilliantly. Jackson does not essay forth as nimbly, this being his pilot stage endeavor as an adult, though within several scenes, he is strong and effective. He especially shines in the civilized yet combative dressing room sequences with Stewart, the comic moments (the missed cue scene that he nails with high-pitched hilarity, his giddiness at a framing window during one of the “productions”, and his over-emoting on a life raft are especially mirth-inducing), and at the end, evinces a quiet, understated consideration for his unraveling colleague that is both surprising and touching. The rest of the time, his John often comes across as a bit of a cipher, merely reactive and mostly passive, though nearer to the end, his flashes of annoyance, escalating disinterest, and burgeoning unpretentious confidence emerge more substantially.
Stewart provides a full-bodied series of portraits of an unwilling man at the end of a journey, building a framework for Robert – and the play — throughout. These faux actors are not necessarily brilliant or extraordinarily talented, but simply seize their moments as they come, utilizing their particular capacities — whether great or small – in every given instance on that brutal, unforgiving stage. In contrast, Jackson offers punchy Polaroids that leave excellent impressions, tentative flashpoints at the beginning of his own passage, yet he often defers to Robert, the character, as well as Stewart, the actor. It is not clear yet whether this dynamic derives more from the play and the characters as written, or from Jackson’s own live theatre inexperience in the face of Stewart’s extensive oeuvre of acting tools and tricks.
Yet Jackson is solid with a conciseness of movement and diction on the stage that bodes well for future live acting work. He has a robust presence and, as aforementioned, a dexterous comic touch. Also, he brings much to a simple gesture and facial expression, often delivering his lines in interesting, varying tones. More variation in the beginning “hmmms” and “yes’s” would be more noteworthy, but as the play goes on, the heft of those utterances do grow with the onslaught of time and encroaching meanings, lending deeper weight to his later delivery of those similar, initial lines. If Jackson learns to jump more fully onto those feet he is slowly finding to grab his own stage-presence center, a more evenly balanced play and dynamic may ensue in later versions.
But then again, such unevenness may be intended within the play’s precisely wrought parameters. For it is Robert’s life in the theatre that the audience is viewing, through the lens of a desperate, lonely, and fading old man, clinging to vestiges of a career that was just this short of mediocre in the first place and Stewart more than rises to the task of rendering this man’s flawed mortality in its fullest, maudlin glory. He is superb as it becomes clear that Robert sees what he wishes he once was in John – though he was probably never that handsome nor charming – but then again, it is not too far-fetched to envision young John eventually evolving into Robert into the distant future, if he stays exactly where he is, as Robert has done.
Beneath that, Robert longs also for connection and, even more repressed, romance, which is subtly hinted at in certain touches and telling reactions during several scenes (a broken costume-pants zipper initiates an encounter both funny and mortifying), illuminating a sense of isolated loneliness that emerges in later scenes as bombastic, nonsensical ramblings that eventually drive John to ruthlessly implore “Will you shut up already!” when he finally reaches the end of his tethers, about three-fourths into the play. For John obviously does not want to remain ensconced there, entombed in repertory theatre for the rest of his days, and while Jackson’s John cagily keeps his growing opportunities outside of the theatre – both professionally and personally – extremely close to his chest, Stewart’s Robert comes completely and elaborately undone, to the point that his final quiet “Good Night” comes across as both a melancholy last gasp as well as a resigned acknowledgement of his own nascent despondency.
A live play is always a work-in-progress. On any given evening, one drops in to view a singular interpretation offered up that night, perhaps impacted by earlier renditions, critical review feedback, directorial retooling, or on-the-spot impulses and instincts by the actors while on-stage. Just nine days into the show’s announced twelve-week run, this particular viewing served up strong performances, enjoyable scenes, and a sense of exploration still occurring. Lindsay Posner, as director, as well as the cast and crew, are still putting this production through its paces.
In terms of stage logistics, those in charge made fine use of rather resourceful dressings. Set in the 1970s, somewhere in a non-urban corner of the United States within a small-town repertory company, the period wardrobe ensembles and hairstyles (including “on-stage” wig-work) efficiently evoke a specific historical period without pushing overmuch into camp (unless intentional, as it is in some of the “performance pieces”). The subtle use of R & B period music – as evinced in some of the dressing room scenes – lends excellent, non-intrusive atmosphere. A proficient and clever use of compact space throughout the play both in sets — a cramped dressing room; a mobile costume-wardrobe rack; simple stage sets for the play snippets; and utilization of walls and doors to signify off-stage, in the wings, or back-stage behind the curtain – and in direction – constantly varying placement of the actors on different parts of the stage, both up- and down-stage, as well as stage right and left — generated effortless movement from scene to scene that was both kinetic and comprehensive, for all the limitations of a small theater and a two-person cast.
Primarily a play about process – of the stage, of acting, of a man’s life, with all ebbs and flows truncated into ephemeral snapshots inside a live-action, progressing scrapbook – this voyeuristic glance into “A Life in the Theatre” is a fine view, indeed. Yet to some degree, though it is a life that flashes quickly past one’s eyes, those still moments, when taken, do resonate, in both terrible and moving ways. It is definitely worth the price of admission, as well as the time spent, to watch this explication of character and delusion, its invariable rise and fall of personalities, egos, intentions and projections, though meandering, showcasing two men that, despite their personal limitations, still seek vainly for validation and purpose during the course of a rather fragile, often cruel profession.