A woman, Virginia Woolf famously wrote, must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Never has this been truer, suggests Theresa Rebeck in her play Seminar,than in today’s cut-throat and commercialised creative fiction market. Kate is one of the lucky few: she has not one room of her own but nine, on the Upper East Side of New York in a swanky apartment owned by her parents. It is here that Kate hosts a weekly writing seminar where she and three other twenty something aspiring writers hang on every word of the formidable Leonard (Roger Allam) – once a bestselling novelist and now an embittered old man with a sadistic love of belittling his students.
Kate, Martin, Douglas and Izzy have each paid $5000 for the questionable privilege of a ten-week audience with Leonard in which he picks up one gingerly proffered manuscript per session, scatters the floor with sheets of paper as he reads through them – silent but for the odd guffaw – then promptly rips the thing to pieces with criticism. First to come under fire is Kate, whose six year oeuvreabout a girl’s obsession with Jane Austen is mercilessly ridiculed as sexually repressed and hopeless.
The action (though it’s really a stretch to call what happens onstage in Seminar action) plays out much as one would expect. A repetitive succession of scenes shows the group meeting, listening to Leonard’s brutal words of wisdom then disbanding, dealing with the onslaught of rejection by forging friendships or drowning their sorrows in alcohol, ice cream and sex on a weekly basis.The flyer advertises Rebeck’s play as “a sparkling cocktail of ambition, power and lust”. Perhaps someone forgot to add the dash of champagne to this production for, though Seminar is satisfying enough and looks the part, it lacks that certain fizz.
Consciously well-read and intellectual to the point of coming across as pretentious, Seminar tries desperately to coax drama from the creative process. It’s a difficult thing to do as writing, redrafting and editing isn’t immediately interesting to a theatre audience. This tough pitch isn’t helped by the fact that Rebeck gives us all the pain of writing but not enough of the rewards. To her, writing is a bleak profession in which there are very few winners – and even they aren’t happy. It’s a dreary affair but things pick up in the second half and thankfully the cast are brilliant: the youngsters bring the passion and sexual energy that the play needs and it’s worth seeing for Allam’s brilliant and assured performance alone.
Hampstead Theatre’s Artistic Director Edward Hall chose this play as a celebration of writing, for his theatre prides itself on championing it. What Seminar ends up showing us is that writing is better left offstage, leaving us to enjoy the fruits of such arduous creative labour without enduring the labour itself.