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Natasha Tripney: Which plays should we consign to the dustbin of history?

Kenneth Branagh, Rob Brydon and Mark Hadfield in The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Kenneth Branagh, Rob Brydon and Mark Hadfield in The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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What is it we actually mean when we describe a play as being a museum piece? I found myself asking this question while watching The Painkiller, the latest production in Kenneth Branagh’s West End season, because, while Branagh himself is kind of revelatory – turns out he’s really, really good at comedy; his timing’s spot-on, he’s limber and loose-jawed, and there’s an almost balletic precision to the way he tumbles face-first into a beanbag; at one point he does this kind of one-handed mirror dance thing which is genuinely brilliant – the play this is all in service of is, however, a pickled thing. It’s dated; it belongs in the Hunterian museum, like a polyp in formaldehyde.

The Painkiller has been adapted by director Sean Foley from Francis Veber’s 1960s play Le Contrat, and while it’s been updated to include references to Netflix and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, it’s still essentially theatre in aspic – the lone female character is a prize to be won, and the play hangs on the belief that the funniest thing that could ever happen to anyone ever is one man falling headfirst into the groin of another.

If Branagh wanted to prove his comedy chops there are other plays out there

This archaism made even the funniest scenes taste sour and I really struggled to see the point of excavating this play at this point in time. If Branagh wanted to prove his comedy chops there are other plays out there. I remember feeling similarly about the (admittedly not all that) recent West End revival of Peter Nichol’s 1977 farce Privates on Parade – starring Simon Russell Beale, with some bonus Orientalism thrown in by director Michael Grandage for good measure. What purpose does this serve, raising these plays like water-logged ships? Are there some texts that should just be left to gather dust, for good? Are there some works where we should just hold up our hands and acknowledge that their time has passed and to reproduce them now is also to reproduce a set of attitudes that are problematic at best, offensive at worst?

We go to museums to learn though, don’t we? To become better informed about the world as it was, the way people thought, the beliefs they held and what those beliefs meant for the society they lived in. While the outdated nature of some aspects of The Painkiller made me wince, I also tend to get all air-punchy when the Orange Tree digs up a Susan Glaspell or the Finborough finds a John van Druten in the airing cupboard (such as London Wall, his play about what it was like to be a woman in the workplace in the 1930s, revived by Tricia Thorns in 2013), I suppose because these are plays that feel in some way prescient or speak to the world we live in now.

I know that’s a huge double-standard, and that the past is not solely there to support my world view. I know that we are richer thinkers the more open we are. I know this, and yet – and yet productions like The Painkiller still make me uncomfortable. It’s a question of context, for one thing: this is a big West End show (though it began life in Belfast in 2011) with a corresponding audience.

It has a degree of cultural prominence and currency, which plays into a wider conversation about the choices we make about the work we programme, about the voices we hear – and those we don’t hear. You could accuse me of being humourless (I have form). You could argue that comedy, and farce in particular, simplifies and magnifies, and that this was never going to be an exercise in nuance – that this was only ever intended to be a bit of fluff and fun (albeit one with an oh-so-hilarious subplot about suicide) but maybe that’s not that strong of an argument anymore? Maybe there are some plays that should be consigned to the bin of history?

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