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David Benedict: Form matters as much as content

Tom Stuart in After Edward at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Nominated for the 1991 Booker prize, Reading Turgenev by the late, great Irish novelist William Trevor lost out to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Despite Okri’s lush novel being a worthy winner, Trevor’s exquisite, quietly devastating story might have won had it been in a different form.

Instead of being published on its own, it was the first in a volume of two novellas entitled Two Lives, a sort of literary double bill, alongside My House in Umbria. The latter was made famous as a TV film with an Emmy-award-winning performance by Maggie Smith, but the print juxtaposition of the two lessened the impact of the perfectly formed Reading Turgenev. To borrow a Neil LaBute play title, The Shape of Things is as important as the content, not least in theatre.

In the strongest work, form delineates, determines and invigorates content. That’s why stage adaptations of films rarely improve on the originals. Aside from the singular pleasure of watching a cast splashing through a downpour on stage, everything else about the many effortful theatrical translations of Singin’ in the Rain has failed to improve upon the original masterpiece in which screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green found the perfect way to make a movie about movie-making.

Since All About Eve is all about the theatre, it did look like Ivo van Hove’s stage version might be the exception that proves the rule. But despite sterling efforts by the entire cast, the directorial conceit – I use the term advisedly – is to abandon the work’s innate theatricalilty to concentrate on a reductive attempt to make the experience as cinematic as possible. Contrast that underwhelming experience with the tiny but terrific After Edward, which recently completed an all-too-brief 11-performance run at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

After Edward review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘poignant, funny and expertly performed’

Springing from the theatre’s current production of Edward II, the play was a cunningly commissioned queer response by actor and writer Tom Stuart to the character and sexuality of Marlowe’s leading man. Understanding the form of his highly specific brief, his writing, plus a deliciously witty production directed by Brendan O’Hea, played expertly to the form dictated by the venue’s uniquely history-drenched atmosphere.

On the face of it, Stuart’s examination of 20th and 21st-century LGBT+ pride and, crucially, shame was hardly new. Gay Sweatshop, founded in 1975 as the UK’s first lesbian and gay theatre company – of which I was latterly one of its artistic directors – presented plays examining past heroes as much as its playwrights dramatised ideas about the present and future. And the climax of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking 1985 cri-de-coeur Aids drama The Normal Heart famously has a speech beginning: “I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter…”

‘After Edward harnessed the resonances of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, illuminating the play’s historical perspective as the stage filled with more recent characters’

But in a nice theatrical borrowing of the real-estate mantra ‘location, location, location’, Stuart harnessed the resonances of the Elizabethan-style venue. He made it illuminate the play’s historical perspective as the stage filled with more recent characters, from Gertrude Stein astride a toilet – a droller-than-droll Annette Badland – to Richard Cant’s blissfully lofty Quentin Crisp and Polly Frame’s dynamic Harvey Milk. The unexpectedly trenchant result was a sincere and unusually witty variation on an old theme. But though I am now keen to see what Stuart writes next, his understanding of form means I don’t think I want to see After Edward anywhere else but there.

Form also follows function in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s current show. The Bay at Nice is not David Hare’s most ambitious work – for my money, that’s Racing Demon or his 1978 TV drama Licking Hitler – but it’s intriguing to see his discursive four-hander, unseen since its 1986 National Theatre premiere. This 75-minute play, seemingly about the attribution of a Matisse, is actually a further expression of one of Hare’s most abiding themes: the nature of truth in relation to political realities.

The play is enhanced not just by director Richard Eyre’s expert balancing of his ideal cast headed by Penelope Wilton commanding laughter and silence in equal measure, but by Eyre’s deployment of his design team. The dramatic arrival of Paul Pyant’s climactic lighting state alone induces a shiver of pleasure.

Eyre is not attempting to persuade anyone that the play is bigger or bolder than it is. He expresses the shape of the work’s question and instead of adding his own ideas about it, he gives audiences the satisfaction of witnessing a writer fully achieving a more modest ambition.

But if Eyre’s revival is small and perfectly formed, it wasn’t originally the case with this play. When it premiered, it played as the first act to Wrecked Eggs, a satire Hare himself has since dismissed as “tepid”. In other words, it was another wrongly shaped double bill. Form really does matter.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

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