Actress Sophie Tergeist reviews Harlequinade / All On Her Own for Box Office
Ever since Kenneth Branagh announced that he was going to take over the Garrick theatre for a new season of plays in repertory, the West End has been buzzing with excitement – or at least I’ve been! What a refreshing format repertory is! I must say I don’t see that very often in the West End, with actors performing in a different piece every night. The Plays at the Garrick include a palette of plays from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet to French farce The Painkiller.
This week, I was lucky to see Harlequinade/All on her own by Terence Rattigan and co-directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford.
Are those two titles? Indeed, the evening is split into two parts, starting with All on her own (a 30-minute monologue which hasn’t been seen in London since 1976) starring Zoë Wanamaker, “on her own”, and followed by the one-act farce Harlequinade (written in 1948).
It is a treat and quite rare to watch two very contrasting productions and to enter two different theatrical worlds on the same night. This is especially remarkable when we remember that they are created by the same writer and that the texts are brought to life by treasures such as Wanamaker and Branagh.
So let’s start with All on her own, an intimate play: Wanamaker plays Rosemary and appears to us in an elegant black dress and styled hair in her Hampstead living room after an evening out. She has had a few drinks, and decides to pour herself a whisky. Suddenly, she starts talking to someone that the audience does not see but that she seems to picture very clearly, sitting on a black sofa: it is her deceased husband who we learn has killed himself.
Wanamaker is captivating in her monologue and truly believes her husband is listening. Over the course of the scene, we can imagine him sitting on the couch. Later, as Rosemary approaches it and drunkenly stretches out where her husband would have been sitting, we are painfully reminded that she is in fact alone. Could a male actor come out at any moment, portraying him? I almost thought he would. It could have been possible, because for me, the scene was split into two parts. As Rosemary lies on the couch, drunk, her glass lying next to her, we think she may fall asleep. Could she start dreaming? And what do her dreams reveal about her? At the close of the scene, the ring on living room’s clock is a wake-up call.
Whether in grief or in more neutral moments, we’ve all found ourselves talking to someone imaginary or to ourselves. Perhaps this is because our mere thoughts are not enough, we need to verbalise them to find answers and to bring sense to them. Sometimes, these spoken words in isolation reveal uncomfortable truths, as they are said for no one but ourselves, without fear of being overheard. This is what I thought while observing Rosemary, who would sometimes speak unkind truths about her marriage. There is freedom in this, but of course also much grief when clouds and demons are revealed when it is already too late.
After a very short break, we enter Harlequinade and the chaotic world of a theatre’s backstage ahead of a performance of Romeo and Juliet. The two teenage lovers are about to be played by theatrical superstar couple Arthur and Edna Gosport (played by Branagh and Miranda Raison). The show will start in a few hours only, and the main actors are still deliberating on what movements to make during their love scenes and whether Arthur is young enough to play Romeo (he doesn’t really look 17 anymore, despite his wig!).
We also meet the stage manager (Tom Bateman) whose fiancée wishes him to find a more “normal” job, one of the players who quits right before the show, frustrated at always being cast in small roles, and a young couple whose baby is apparently Arthur’s grandchild. It is quite a mess.
However, in Rattigan’s farce, the mess is fun. It’s the theatre, after all. As an actress myself, I can safely say that there are few better places than a theatre. In this production, actors may be addicted to their job (Edna feels the urge to bow whenever she holds hands with someone) and completely unfocused when it comes to anything other than the show, but that is what we love to hate about them.
The acting in this production is impeccable. Tom Bateman is lovable as the stage manager dealing with his personal as well as his actors’ life changes, Hadley Fraser is very amusing as the First Halberdier who is so excited about being given a small but very significant line in Romeo and Juliet and Raison is completely in her own thespian dreamy world. So is Branagh by the way, as the slightly crazy miscast multi-tasking actor.
Watching Branagh on stage is a joy. He is one of those actors who is so at ease, floating around, as if he were dancing. The way he moves and speaks with such lightness is what makes him one of the greats.
One must also note the lovely dancing and musical sequences throughout Harlequinade, as well as its purposefully artificial stage design by Christopher Oram.
Even though there are a few satirical elements to Harlequinade, it is perhaps inferior to other major plays about the theatre’s backstage world and the life of actors. Rattigan’s humour is pleasing, yes, but to my taste, the choice of these plays makes the evening typically crowd-pleasing and not challenging enough.
However, as we are still at the beginning of the Plays at the Garrick and that the programme ranges from comedy to more dramatic work, I can see the season developing into more challenging outings for the audience.