November 03, 2011

Inadmissible Evidence, Donmar Warehouse

1 star

Inadmissible Evidence at the Donmar Warehouse has met with unanimously positive reviews from the national press. Certainly, credit should be given to the Donmar, this little powerhouse of excellent theatre, for tackling yet another lesser-known and intriguing play – one of John Osborne’s last and most profoundly autobiographical. Yet I emerged from the theatre feeling unmoved, bored and rather baffled.

Osborne’s play, while linguistically virtuosic and funny, as his writing always tends to be, is also baggy, bombastic and stylistically muddled. And it isn’t made any clearer in Jamie Lloyd’s rather unadventurous and seemingly misguided production with Douglas Hodge in the main seat playing middle-aged lawyer Bill Maitland.

From the outset, you know that you’re in for a gruelling night. Hodge is at the forefront of the stage, twitching, shouting, and physically pulsating with the sort of nervous energy that only people who have breakdowns in drama school possess. We know we are in the territory of a chronic mental haemorrhage, but also feel that Hodge may have shot his bolt rather. How much more deranged can one person (still married, still employed in the law, still seducing multiple women, and still with over two hours of stage time ahead of them) become? This is like a production of King Lear in which the director decides that Lear will rip his clothes off on the heath in the very first scene.

What may have helped us understand this initial set up, and indeed the rest of the play, would have been a clearer sense of the interiority of Maitland’s breakdown, but there is nothing in Jamie Lloyd’s production at all to suggest that we are inside the mind of this man. Instead, the setting and approach throughout are starkly realistic. During this opening scene, a judge and solicitor lounge languidly in upstage armchairs, watching Hodge unravel before their eyes, with expressions similar to those if they were watching breakfast TV. The scene takes place in the office that forms the set for the rest of the play, which is brightly lit, leaving us with a sense of confusion as to where we are and what this is supposed to be. Perhaps if Lloyd had been a little more daring with staging, lighting and sound (distorted voice-overs for the other characters perhaps?) then we might have understood this scene to be a private insight into Maitland’s tormented mind – part of the surrealist dream scape of this play that the programme alludes to.

While Hodge’s deeply irritating unexplained ticks and hyper vocal activity slowly wear you down throughout the production, the rest of the characters suffer from being rather sketchily and unrealistically drawn by their author, and rather half-heartedly tackled by the actors. The second act is weighed down by a sequence of ponderous monologues –by two characters in whom the audience have no real interest, but which take up a disproportionate amount of time, and the other from Maitland. It features some of the most rancid dialogue you will hear in the theatre, yet when shock upon shock is piled on in order to try and climax what is an already climaxed play in the first scene, you soon find yourself rolling your eyes at Osborne taking up our precious time for such inane dialogue. I also have to say I was puzzled by Lloyd’s decision to have the only characters who are doubled up be two minor characters in the second act. Did his budget run out as they waded through this beast of a play?

Ultimately, this is a work which has an overwhelmingly sour heart. It is deeply unpleasant at best and is stretched out to such a degree that you almost become immune to its unpleasantness. In order to salvage something from it, I would like to see a younger actor like Sam West in the role of Bill Maitland, convincingly provoking some sexual arousal in his female companions and bringing out the superficial veneer of authority, charisma and control that I’m sure Osborne wanted Maitland to possess some of. As it stands, it is like having a drunken jelly on stage throughout. Furthermore, it would be good to have an editor with a red pen and a ruthless eye, and a director that is prepared to throw aside naturalism and tear at the play’s fabric to see what can be done with it. Only then can we stand a chance of appreciating, if not liking, this piece.

Inadmissable Evidence, Donmar Warehouse

Douglas Hodge: a drunken jelly


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