THEATRE: By W. J. IGOE A T the time of the year when I-1 the young feel childish and the old ancient, one takes stock. Surrounded by common festive debris, holly lurking in embarrassing places, mistletoe coyly floating in corners, Christmas cards solemnly ranged on indifferent furniture, bottles more recklessly displayed, those peculiar books sent by friends who should know better, and the grisly neckties that cast doubt upon the good will of the gift-horses; against the background made for the holy season by shop-keepers, the critic stirs the stiffening pages of his notebook.
How did the actor and his audience fare in 1953?
As ever, my memories are focussed on the players. The tenacity and successes of mediocre playwrights are astonishing features of London theatre. Consequently the vitality of our stage derives from the allegiance given by actors to the stock heaped in the traditional storehouse of classics and translated classics. 1953 'Honours' FROM the mass of new work in 1953 only Mr. Alan Webb's gentle, ungainly, modestly glowing saint Eggerson, and Miss Isabel Jeans's fluently imbecile and exquisitely graceful Lady Mulhammer, both in Mr. Eliot's The Confidential Clerk, have staked permanent claims in the mind.
One goes to work tested by thievish time in search of the actor 1953 must honour. In Antony and Cleopatra, Mr. Michael Redgrave's Roman captain? This Antony, a warrior of the world shambling to moral decrepitude, oozing corruption as a cooked goose dribbles grease, echoed yet the athlete of Philippi and the subtle, vengeful braggart of the Forum; a princely ruin and a human slum were embodied in the performance; it strongly demands the Laurel.
Miss Peggy Ashcroft's suicidal nymphomaniac was a fitting consort. This Antony and "Egypt" will not be forgotten.
Heroic Mr. Wolfit AT the Old Vic, Mr. Paul Roger's blond, bearish Henry VIII, cramped neurotic Cassius, Italianate Shylock and his sporting assassin in Mr. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, are recalled. One remembers, too, Mr. Douglas Campbell's sturdy Johnsonian Antonio and Mr. Michael Hordern's relic of a statesman, Polonius. But these performances were seen in the light that bathes theatre with national pretensions.
The actor who gave me most pleasure in 1953 was Mr. Donald Wolfit working in a suburb. At the King's Theatre, Hammersmith. he played Oedipus, Shylock, Lear, Lord Ogleby, Macbeth, Sir Toby. Petruchio, Sir Peter Teazle and Sir Giles Overreach.
Mr. Wolfit is a heroic actor on a heroic scale. The Oedipus, which opened his season, showed a range
of emotion unique among contemporary players. Sculpted as a piece of Greek statuary. it came to life in the beginning, a kingly dictator, in the fall, writhing like a stabbed shark, it horrified, and out of agony was born again a monarch-father.
The scene where the tortured hands stretched outwards as if crucified and the bloody gaps in the face, the eyeless sockets sought the children of Oedipus to embrace and see them, was unforgettable.
In the second part the actor gave us an old tribal chieftain mellowed by suffering, silly with age, lovable, drowsing in the rustic warmth of Colonus, a gentle father who rose again at the ending. cursing the wicked like a sharp-fanged Druid before going into darkness. This performance stands out, in a career that is a gallery of masterly portraits, because it was new and because it exercised so much of a magnificent talent.
But one might write of Mr. Wolfit's delicious puppet, Lord Ogleby; finely wrought to infinity, his savage bullrodent, Overreach; the bloated, flawed, yet noble Macbeth; the dancing Mercutio; and knightly Sir Peter —each part lived and lives.
One salutes this player in admiration and gratitude. When we were younger he brought us the classics. At the height of his powers he keeps them living in their proper place, the actor's stage.
Mr. Eliot again
THE peak of dramatic writing in
1953 was Mr. Eliot's The Confidential Clerk. It should be seen by all who respect the craft of theatre. Among lesser works, Mr. Roger McDougall's Escapade I consider the best and most intelligent comedy seen since 1945.
Mr. Graham Greene's The Living Room revealed a master technician of literary forms and flashes of the spiritual genius that is a missing element in contemporary writing for the stage. It has moving moments, shrewd thrusts at certain aspects of the contemporary Catholic mind; it is brilliantly theatrical. It fails, I believe, because character is sacrificed to symbolism and the love affair which is the central anecdote rings false. .
Light entertainments which 1 pleasantly remember were The Two Bouquets and The Boy Friend. The latter, at the Embassy, Swiss Cottage, is good holiday fare.