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There’s been a nice debate in the past two years about two plays that opened 50 years ago, both by now dead but then new playwrights: The perpetually irritable David Hare has argued that he cares passionately for John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, whereas he would cheerfully see any political docudrama rather than Waiting for Godot. The perpetually affable Peter Hall has argued that Samuel Beckett’s Godot was the most radically new thing to happen to theatre in the last century.
Do you want to join in this debate? Thanks to Hall, you can. Go to Bath. The Peter Hall Company is wrapping up its summer season at the Theatre Royal there by staging both – and staging them well. Frankly, both should transfer to London and tour Britain.
Hare is wrong and Hall is right. Anger is a three-act play that took its craft from a tradition that went back to Ibsen and its kitchen- sink-and-underwear realism from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. But Godot had already made the leap into a new genre.
Or Hare is half-right and Hall is not entirely right. Beckett went on to much more daring and profound masterpieces than Godot; but in Anger’s protagonist, Jimmy Porter, Osborne had created a character who was larger than everything else he ever wrote. He’s like a force of nature: he blasts away, cruelly, blazingly, but not actually heartlessly, and certainly not pointlessly.
Everyone should see Anger at least once a decade. Jimmy is the kind of jolt to the nerves we all need now and then. Peter Gill directs with exemplary pace and clarity. My only reservation is that Richard Coyle shows us Jimmy with searing clarity while not actually being under his skin. During his most furious tirades, he’s classically composed from the neck down, and his consonants are a little too emphatic. But people new to the play were yet more caught up than I – and I was engrossed. The Godot, is a revival of the excellent one I praised last year, directed by Hall. Compare; contrast; enjoy. ★★★★☆
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