Pretty much every dramatist has at some time stopped in amazement at the ridiculous nature of what they are doing. They are writing words for people to pretend to be other people in a public space in front of a group of paying customers in the dark who pretend they aren’t there.
The most enduring working out of this strange relationship between writers, actors and audience was by Luigi Pirandello with his 1921 Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Now writer James Woolf has attempted to make dramatic sense of a play about players, a theatre of theatricality in which the traditional structure of drama is jettisoned.
The Play with Speeches opens on a stage with a set in place for another play; here world-weary director Penny played by Katherine Reilly and exuberant playwright Anthony, played by Matthew Parker, are auditioning for a play. Penny is glamorous if advancing in years, Anthony (‘An-thony with a TH, not Antony with a T’) is the moving force of the play, conceited, vulnerable and over-enthusiastic, sometimes literally jumping with glee.
An undercurrent of nastiness is present in the interchanges between Penny and Anthony, as we come to understand they used to be in a sexual relationship which ended badly. Some of the best lines in the play come from the tensions between them as their relationship and breakup is recounted in retrospect.
The audition texts the actors perform make up their own story of a prosperous man who runs every morning but takes a diversion to see his boyfriend. He has a heart attack and is incapacitated, and is then at the mercy of his wife.
This slight tale is enriched by the variety of actors who portray a parody of theatre styles and theatre types. The actor so over-eager for a part that they will say anything: ‘I’ve always wanted to play someone in a coma.’ The actor who only comes to read because she is a friend of the director and then insists on the part she will play. The actor who keeps coming back after her audition because she has left something behind. The actor so smooth and confident they literally take over the production…
At one point the actor playing the actor who has taken the place of the main character playing the writer denies any responsibility for errors in the script because. after, all, he is only pretending to be the writer. Go figure.
The production doesn’t so much break through the fourth wall as kick it down, raising the house lights to talk to the audience and encourage participation which was a bit pantomime for my taste, though the crowd on a night in Brockley at the friendliest theatre in South London enjoyed it.
The production is played for laughs and it gets many of them. Having set on the path of farce, however, it is difficult to turn a corner to emphasise the genuinely sinister aspect to this drama.
- Playwright: James Woolf
- Directors: Katherine Reilly, Ursula Campbell
- Cast: Matthew Parker, Katherine Reilly, Jumaane Brown, Mark Parsons, Camilia O'Grady, Mayuresh Mishra, Anna Blackburn, Michael Perlmutter
- Jack Studio Theatre
- Performance run: 14 February - 4th March 2023
- Performance Time: 7.30pm
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