Page 14, 26th August 2011

26th August 2011
Page 14
Page 14, 26th August 2011 — Ragtime musical with a timely racial message

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Organisations: Ku Klux Klan


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Ragtime musical with a timely racial message



Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s award-wining American musical records a terrible miscarriage of ustice , which ends with an innocent man being dragged out of an open prison by a mob, affiliated to the Ku Klux Klan, and lynched. Audiences in New York in 1998 found the [now timely] racial tone far too disturbing and the show ran for only 84 performances.

In 1913 on Confederate Memorial Day a 13-year-old factory girl was murdered in Atlanta, Georgia. The superintendent was accused on circumstantial evidence and the false testimony of a group of young girls. A night watchman, who discovered the body, was also suspected; but the Governor of Georgia, in the script’s most striking statement, said that there had been “far too many n----rs being arrested and hung recently” and that the police should find somebody else and arrest them instead.

The night watchman was suborned to accuse the superintendent of murder. The amazing thing is that an allwhite jury should have believed a black man when he was a criminal and had served time in prison. Alfred Uhry, who was born in Atlanta, has his jury believe the night watchman was the murderer. The superintendent had two great disadvantages: he was a Jew and he came from the North. Anti-Semitism was rife and memories of the Civil War rankled in the South. The story is totally gripping and Jason Robert Brown’s dramatically urgent score, with its strong drum beat, mixes gospel and ragtime and is always pleasant to listen to.

There are fine performances from Alistair Brookshaw as the superintendent, Laura Pitt Pulford as the superintendent’s extremely loyal wife, Terry Doe as the night watchman, Mark Inscoe as the Prosecutor and Simon Bailey as the Demagogue. The major problem with Thom Sunderland’s production, and it is a serious one, is the acoustics in the theatre’s vaulted space. The solos are fine but when the whole company is singing you can’t hear the lyrics. Why has everybody been miked so loudly? The Wolf NETWORK THEATRE, WATERLOO STATION The plays of the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952) are elegant and sophisticated, full of Freudian nuance and sexual ambiguity, and not nearly as trivial as they may at first seem. His best-known works, which include Liliom (1909), The Guardsman (1910), and The Play’s The Thing (1924), were produced with great success in Vienna, London and Paris at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Wolf (1913), last seen in the West End in 1973 with Leo McKern, Judi Dench and Edward Woodward, is in three acts and in three different theatrical styles. The first act shows a paranoid husband (Brendan Jones) so lacking in self-esteem that he makes himself ill with his unfounded suspicions that his beautiful wife (Katherine French) is unfaithful. This scene – a vision of marriage as hell – could easily be acted as if it were by Strindberg; the demarcation between farce and tragedy is thin.

Seven years earlier, when she was single, his wife had been courted by a young law student. She had kept his letter in which he promised that he would come back one day to claim her either as a military commander, a diplomat, a world-famous artist or as a mere servant. In the second act she dreams of his return in these four different guises. The scenes, psychologically interesting, also allow Molnár to parody the sort of clichéd romantic drivel and hammy acting that would have been seen on the Budapest stage at that time.

The third act is something different again. The wife wakes from her dream to be confronted with the real student (Alexander Andreou) and finds he bears no relation to any of her fantasies and that he is a boring clerk. Molnár, having carefully prepared the audience for either a sentimental happy ending, or, possibly, a cynical ending, wrong-foots them completely and opts for utter heartbreak. Molnár’s hilarious one-act play, One, Two, Three (1929) has just been revived with great success by the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake under the title of The President. It would be great if somebody could stage it here.

Robert Tanitch

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