In the past two decades, there have been two revelatory productions of J.B. Priestley plays at the National Theatre that demonstrated how a contemporary director can give new life and meaning to an older play. Stephen Daldry's production of AN INSPECTOR CALLS that moved from the National to a long run on the West End and on Broadway turned a three act drawing room philosophical mystery into a no-interval expressionistic piece. Last year, Rupert Goold's production of TIME AND THE CONWAYS was faithful to the play while adding dazzling visual moments that underscored the theme of the relativity of time. This is not to say that every revival of an older play must be director's theater with a startlingly different stylistic approach to a realistic drama. The recent production of Arthur Wing Pinero's 1908 play THE THUNDERBOLT at the Orange Tree in Richmond was faithful to the text, but the director and actors had clear ideas about the play and how it should be performed 102 years after its debut. Leaving the West End revival of Priestley's WHEN WE ARE MARRIED, I could not help but mull over the old question of the value of theater as a museum of artifacts from the past. I also couldn't help thinking of the adage, "Treat a new play as if it is a classic and treat a classic as if it is a new play." A production must justify itself and the play being performed. This revival of WHEN WE ARE MARRIED did neither.
J.B. Priestley is known for his novels and his philosophical dramas. WHEN WE ARE MARRIED is more situation comedy with some dark overtones. The play was written in 1938. There was still the depression and World War II was beginning in Europe. At this dark point in Britain's history, Priestley chose to write a light play that is also a piece of nostalgia both for Britain's past and for a kind of drama that he knew as a young man. The play is set in 1908 in a mythical West Yorkshire town not unlike Priestley's home town, Bradford. Stylistically, it could have been written in 1908. The characters are the wealthy, powerful folk of the town. They are the same sort of people Pinero satirizes in THE THUNDERBOLT, written in the year WHEN WE ARE MARRIED takes place, but Pinero has a point of view toward his characters. Priestley wants us to see them both realistically and as comic types. In the style of feelgood comedy, he also wants us to believe that they can change once their faults are pointed out.
Three couples are celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They got married on the same day and now are the prominent citizens of the town. They discover that due to a technicality they aren't legally married. This leads to the usual comic reversals. A henpecked husband stands up to his domineering wife. A docile wife tells her husband what she thinks of him. An infidelity is discovered. A drunken photographer comes in and out. After two hours the couples discover that their marriages are legal after all. Given the revelations, this isn't necessarily a happy conclusion, more an ambivalent one like the end of Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTE. At the end of this production, they characters all sang a period song as if nothing had been questioned.
WHEN WE ARE MARRIED is considered a classic British comedy and has had a number of successfl revivals. I wonder if it hasn't past its due date. We see better period comedy and drama on television now, like the brilliant series DOWNTON ABBEY now on British television. Even if there were any substance in Priestley's play, and I don't discern any, it would take a better production than this to make it worth seeing. The production is cast with veteran stars of stage and television, but they go through this as if real acting weren't necessary. First of all, they are all too old. The couples are celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversaries, not their fiftieth. The characters should be in their forties, not their sixties and seventies. The ingenue leads even looked too old for their parts. Perhaps because of the age, the production is far too slow. Light comedy needs above all pace. This had none. As the house lights go down, we hear a lugubrious piece of period music (hardly a piece to signal comedy) but a fitting introduction to a flaccid production. The men play Yorkshire types, but are far too muted. Of the women, only Maureen Lipman seems to realize that she's in a comedy. Her schtick gets the only full out laughs. As the photographer, Roy Hudd is tedious and he's onstage a lot. He gets paired up with party girl Rosemary Ashe who screams and cackles her way through her part. This seemed to be one of those productions where the director (Christopher Luscombe) simply let the actors do their thing with minimal intervention. There was no overall style and no rhythm.
The set was lovely and the costumes were appropriate.
Fortunately, we got half-price tickets, but this production of WHEN WE ARE MARRIED reinforced my skepticism about West End productions. I hate to bring up the subject of money, but I pay fifteen pounds or less to see intelligent, absorbing revivals at theaters like the Orange Tree and the Finborough. Even at half-price I paid £27.75 to see this mediocre production in the West End. Then there's the question of West End audiences. Like Broadway, the West End is for seeing stars rather than plays or productions. They have just announced a revival of Lillian Hellman's 1935 play, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, with Keira Knightley and MAD MEN's Elizabeth Moss. Prime seats for this will be £75 which is high even for a West End musical. But will this production justify reviving this old play about accusations of lesbianism? In all the press releases I have seen, no mention is made of who will be directing it. Nonetheless, it will get an audience to see the leads in person. Wouldn't it be better to find a good new play for them to be in? When Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig recently appeared on Broadway, they at least appeared in a new work, even if it was a mediocre one. The commercial theater is not the answer to keeping theater meaningful in the twenty-first century.
WHEN WE ARE MARRIED by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Christopher Luscombe. Garrick Theatre. November 5, 2010.