Theatre Reviews by Janice Dempsey
A moving, ultimately inspiring exploration of the resilience and courage of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.
Alice is a Harvard professor of cognitive psychology. Aged fifty, her career is at least as successful as her scientist husband, John’s. They lead active, healthy lives, even if she feels they’re somewhat disconnected from each other by the demands of their careers. Their two grown-up children are on the verge of consolidating their lives. The family has everything to look forward to. When Alice begins to experience unaccountable lapses of memory and disorientation, her doctor diagnoses early Alzheimer’s disease. The changes in all their lives, but particularly in Alice’s, are, of course, profound.
Originally a novel by Gina Genova, herself a Doctor of Neuroscience, the story was adapted for the stage by Christine Mary Dunford and premiered in Chicago, following a film in 2014 starring Julianne Moore. Dunford’s stage adaptation was premiered in Britain this year in Leeds, directed by David Grindley. Wendy Mitchell, herself for the past three years a sufferer of young-onset dementia, advise the cast and designer on how best to express the world as Alice experiences it over the course of the three years covered by the play’s chronology. Her contribution has led, for example, to the gradually changing character of the set, from conventionally organised, through more chaotic, random arrangement, to a pared down, almost empty stage in the last scenes.
The most striking theatrical device introduced by Dunford is the character of “Herself” (Eva Pope), a younger version of Alice (Sharon Small) who shadows Alice as her inner voice, sharing her decline but supporting and encouraging her to remember who she is, who she has been, and what she can still do despite the disease that is inevitably destroying her mind and body and will kill her, probably before she can see her family achieve what she hopes for them. Alice is a rational person, to whom the loss of control is most distressing; personified, her “used-to-be-self” helps her to cope with the present moment, comforts her in the darkest times, counters the patronising encounters with doctors who talk about her as though she isn’t in the room, teaches her to value what she still has and to learn emotionally. Sensitive direction and beautiful performances by Pope and Small create a memorable narrative of the inner life of Alice. The moments of humour (and yes, there are those) arise from their shared dialogue and commentary.
The family are faced with life-changing decisions through Alice’s illness; Martin Marquez as John moves from a husband used to taking his wife for granted to a more actively caring partner; their son and daughter pursue their own dreams but seem closer to their mother because of her new and growing vulnerability. Alice is still Alice when she addresses an audience to tell them how she will live now: in every moment, enjoying every sensation and experience she can to the fullest, for as long as she lives.
I won’t deny that I cried. But this is a play everyone should see.
Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” is based on topics of which he has enormous experience: playwriting and the world of theatre itself, fame, and the private lives and loves of artists. It’s about sexual relationships between men in an era of legal repression of homosexuality, and about aging and the passing of time. It’s about loyalty to old friends and fear of loss and death, and about the way that an artist can’t give up “the habit of art”, however much he has had to debase or trivialise it in order to earn a living or cater to the expectations of the public as a “national treasure”.
Set behind the scenes on the stage of a provincial theatre, we meet the cast and author of “Caliban’s Day”, a play about an interview by Humphrey Carpenter (a respected BBC interviewer in the 1960’s) with the elderly poet WH Auden, and about his relationship with the aging composer Benjamin Britten. The actors struggle in and out of role in a wonderful tapestry woven of reality and art. The author looks on, at times despairingly, for the actors and director are bringing their own interpretations to bear on his play’s agenda.
There are very funny moments, as when John Wark, playing Donald (playing Humphrey Carpenter) rebels because the script doesn’t allow him enough stage presence – “A device, a narrator, that’s all I am in this play!” Donald’s attempt to add to the Carpenter role results in a lovely farcical moment. There’s more subtle humour in the voice, graceful movements and exquisite comic timing of Alexandra Guelff as George, the Assistant Stage Manager. We also smiled at the tact and patience of Company Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) in keeping the rehearsal on track.
The performance of Matthew Kelly as Fitz playing Auden is superb. The roles of fictional actor, Fitz, and the “real” Auden (who in Bennett’s play is, of course, a construct of the fictional author’s play) are entangled and melded, so that Auden, the grand old man of poetry in his era, can also be understood as a fallible, vulnerable artist and flawed human being. Kelly portrays this dual role with tremendous understanding and empathy. David Yelland as Britten is also vulnerable: his elegant manners mask his fear that his illegal sexual liaisons will destroy the reputation that he has built through his art. Both are haunted by time. In the play-within-the play, “Auden” accuses Britten of dishonesty and has no illusions about his own sexual mores. These are demonstrated by his conversations with “Stuart”, called up from an agency. Space prevents my discussing the role of Tim, meta-playing “Stuart” (Benjamin Chandler). Perhaps this is appropriate, for Neil explains that Stuart represents the ordinary folk who long to touch fame but who, in the scheme of things, are left out of history.
This was an evening of absorbing theatre by a master of the medium: thought-provoking, moving, funny, witty, sharp and highly enjoyable.
This review was first published on https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts