Had I not glanced at the programme before the curtain went up, I would like to think that I would still have known that this off-Broadway production of Mary Rose was directed by a woman. Such a remark is not only coarsely sexist but superficially nonsensical: the play was written in 1919 by a man.
And not just any man: J.M. Barrie, the Scotsman who gave the world Peter Pan. But this Mary Rose has touches of delicacy that are not merely in the writing, and I wonder if a man would have been sufficiently mood-sensitive to have realised them.
The director-in-question, Tina Landau, perhaps best known for Floyd Collins, is no specialist in softness. But in Mary Rose, a mostly gentle ghost story that shuttles between post-world war one Sussex and the late-Victorian Hebrides, she will not allow her actors to make the tone too passionate, even when the effect is sometimes lethargic.
An Australian enlisted man, for example, who has come back to a Sussex home where he lived as a child, could have been played for hearty laughs. Instead, Richard Short invests him with a sense of childlike mischief.
Similarly, Mr Cameron – the local lad who escorts Mary Rose and her husband, Simon, around the Hebrides isle where Mary disappeared for 20 hours as a child, and where she mysteriously goes missing again – is given an undercurrent of quiet resentment that indicates the tenor of the staging as much as the sum of an actor’s choices.
That actor, Ian Brennan, makes especially sly sport of the English. His derision of their ungrateful attitude toward book-learning is a rejoinder to Johnson’s famous remark: “Knowledge was divided among the Scots like bread in a besieged town: to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful.”
In spite of Landau’s sensitivity to emotional states, there is no disguising that Mary Rose is not much more than a curio. Burdened by sometimes redundant narration, its charms are steady but slight.
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