wednesday 4th june 2008
a new play by michale frayn
lyttleton, national theatre
A man who has everything. Money, friends, a happy home.
And then – pfft! It’s all vanished.
Max Reinhardt, one of the greatest impresarios of theatrical history, had a lifelong ambition – to dissolve the boundary between theatre and the world it portrays. Each year at the Salzburg festival he directed a famous morality play, Everyman, about God sending Death to summon a representative of mankind for judgment. The victim he chooses is a man who, like Reinhardt, rejoices in his wealth and all the pleasures that money can buy.
Then in 1938 Hitler declares his own day of reckoning and sends Death into Austria – whereupon Reinhardt, a Jew, is left as naked and vulnerable as Everyman himself.
Michael Frayn’s Afterlife is the story of how Reinhardt achieves his great ambition; though in a way he can scarcely have foreseen.
Roger Allam, last seen at the National Theatre in Michael Frayn's Democracy, plays Reinhardt. Michael Frayn's other recent productions at the National were Copenhagen and Noises Off.
unfortunately another miss from the national. we were disappointed and underwhelmed by this. it has its moments but fails to accumulate into anything.
the show - which is about a man famous for staging immense pageants - is written and performed in the style of a pageant. this is engaging for about the first 20minutes and then becomes increasingly wearying and shallow.
there are moments that stand out: the complete ease and relaxation with which reinhardt tell the archbishop he is a jew and you shiver knowing in how few years ahead this will be an instant sentence; the mechanical precisely performed dance sequence by the servants that presages the clipped tight fascist marches and salutes; the more obvious similarities between the theatricality of the pageants and the later pageants of the hitler rallies.
the set is huge and chunky and altho impressive forces most of the performance into a two-dimensional face-out-front which lends itself well enough to the pageantry but again fails to add any depth.
frayn's the programme notes talk about how difficult and complex reinhardt was as a man and list an intriguing array of productions and films but what he gives us is a much smaller domestic story of a rich man at home perpetually engaged in conceiving, selling, realising or hiding in the shadows and running from the money problems made by some silly (to us) pageant. rather than an evocation of of the little boy who dreamed his childhood away from the cheap seats or the creator who imagines and then painstaking crafts programmes of immense scale and specificity we only get the showman, the bully, the perfectionist, and yes the tender lover.
unfortunately despite wanting to like this it was for me a wearying and irrelevant night at the theatre - albeit expensively produced. more frustratingly it did feel like several opportunities missed.
sadly this is the 5th new play we've seen in the current national season that has been unexceptional (with "happy now"; "never so good"; "the year of magical thinking" "harper regan"). "fram" is the only show that was special.
we pin our hopes now on "the pitman painters" ...