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A CurtainUp London London Review
Farewell to the Theatre

When we no longer have theatre, it means we are dead. — Harley Granville Barker
Farewell to the Theatre
Ben Chaplin as Harley and Tara Fitzgerald as Beatrice
(Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
The first half of Richard Nelsonís play Farewell to the Theatre about the legendary Edwardian actor and theatre director, Harley Granville Barker is full of theatrical anecdotes while the second looks at power politics and bullying in an academic setting. Set in a Williamstown college in Massachusetts in 1916, Harley Granville Barker, about to be in between marriages, is in America escaping the trauma and bloodletting in Europe of the First World War.

Hildegarde Bechtlerís lovely set is dark with plain floorboards, wooden tables and plain chairs, black curtains dominate the rear of the stage but there is a beautiful, holographic glimpse of trees through a floor to ceiling plate glass window screen of the grounds beyond. It was HGB who pioneered some amazingly well designed Shakespearean productions. Look at images of his Art Nouveau A Midsummer Nightís Dream at The Savoy Theatre in 1914 or the futuristic black and white Twelfth Night of 1912.

Roger Michellís production is finely acted and redolent in Chekhovian atmosphere. HGB (Ben Chaplin) entertains us with his Wildean wit and disdainful amusement, relating tales of the theatre. Jason Watkins is a Dickensian expert who entertains with readings from the novelist and here we get an animated and multi-voiced excerpt from The Pickwick Papers whilst he conceals personal tragedy. By contrast, Tara Fitzgerald is Beatrice Hale, a lecturer and actress in her forties, her marriage also on the rocks, gushingly in love with a college student Charles Massinger (William French), who will be playing Feste in the college production of Twelfth Night. Brother and sister, English lecturer Henry (Louis Hilyer) and Guest House keeper Dorothy (Jemma Redgrave) have back stories of their own. Henry is the victim of a vindictive principal Professor Weston, whom we never meet, in a trumped up plot against his tenure at the college. Dorothyís marriage was a sham and all but her knew about it in this small academic community. Andrew Havill completes the cast as the very twitchy lecturer George Smith.

Ben Chaplin with a centre parting looks remarkably like HGB. His performance is of a man not sure of his own direction, yet a raconteur of some skill who can hold an audience. Soon after this is set in 1918 HGB marries the wealthy Helen Huntingdon and concentrates on writing about rather than acting and directing and producing theatre. Each of the men has a sad and poignant tale to tell. The exception is the only American in the cast, Charles Massinger who has chosen career advancement over integrity. Tara Fitzgerald dotes on Charles in an embarrassing way. Jemma Redgraveís Dorothy busies, laying the table and serving the supper but later confides in Granville Barker about her brother.

The stories come together to underline HGBís belief in the importance of theatre, central to our society and his directorial move away from the artifice and posing of Victorian melodrama and a naturalness of speech as well as his belief in the role a national theatre could play in experimentation and raising standards. The closing scene has a joyful Mummersí play put on by the cast. If you donít know about Harvey Granville Barker the man and collaborator of George Bernard Shaw, you will come away wanting to know more and to see his own plays Waste and The Voysey Inheritance amongst others. Note: Granville Barker himself wrote a rarely performed play called Farewell to the Theatre in 1916.

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Farewell to the Theatre
Written by Richard Nelson
Directed by Roger Michell

Starring: Ben Chaplin, Jemma Redgrave, Jason Watkins, Louis Hilyer, Tara Fitzgerald
With: William French, Andrew Havill,
Designed by Hildegarde Bechtler
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: One hour 50 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 7th April 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th March 2012 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

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