There is a play called Farewell to the Theatre by Harley Granville-Barker, the great Edwardian writer, director and visionary theatre-maker. This, though, is not that play. Written by Richard Nelson, this new drama considers the circumstances around the writing of the original – what appears to have been a crucial period for Barker and one that concluded, ultimately, with him withdrawing from professional theatre. Why did he do it?
Nelson doesn’t come to any one conclusion. Instead he explores a cocktail of conditions – personal, professional and political – that might have contributed. When we meet Barker he is holed up in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It’s 1916. The war has put paid to his plans for a national theatre in London and a recent journey through France has left its mark. He is broke, in the midst of an acrimonious divorce and has fallen, inexplicably, out of love with theatre. He finds himself surrounded by other English people, all of whom are becalmed or trapped in some way.
The result is a meditative piece that leans towards Chekhov in style. Characters struggle to comprehend or articulate their circumstances and can’t move on, despite their desire to do so. The plot is minimal, but concerns an offstage college production of Twelfth Night, through which the vicious rivalries of both the theatre and academic worlds are exposed. The clue to the feel of the piece perhaps lies in a moment when Barker talks of writing a play in which there would be no “doing”, only “being”, so the actor had to interest the audience not in what his character did, “but who he was”.
Certainly Ben Chaplin as Barker achieves this. A vivid, compelling actor, he makes Barker sardonic, funny, acerbically intelligent and observant – but he also suggests a deep weariness that remains unspoken. There’s lovely support too from Jemma Redgrave as a brutally honest landlady and Jason Watkins as a struggling Dickens recitalist.
But there is a difficulty in focusing on such a low point in Barker’s life – we don’t see him in action, having to rely on sometimes awkward speeches to reveal his significance. And the low-key nature of the play makes it hard to energise. So while director Roger Michell’s spare, elegiac staging contains some haunting moments, the overall effect feels rather muted. And though the play sympathetically celebrates Barker’s view of the essential humanity of theatre, he and his companions remain frustratingly at arm’s length.