Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 3. 1967.
Downstage contrast; wit opposes gloom
Downstage contrast; wit opposes gloom
Jean-Paul Sartre and Christopher Fry —No Exit and A Phoenix Too Frequent
—black comedy and white—combine (in the latest Downstage presentation) to form an interesting chiaroscuro. This evening of antithesis weighs slightly in favour of Fry's lighter, more pretentious talent, and one of the few gripes one has about the programme is that perhaps this really shouldn't be so.
Witty, opportune and instructive the pairing is, but perhaps the daily reviewers were (for once) not far off the mark with their comments that Fry's wit took away the black taste left by Sartre's impressive but gloomy work. The question is: Should it have? One appreciates the dialectical wit that made the pairing, but one can't help feeling that it did Sartre less than justice.
Sartre's No Exit is not in any pejorative sense dramatised philosophy. In fact, it might be said of Sartre that, despite his puritanical statements about the function and value of art, his philosophy, whether he realises it or not, aspires to the condition of literature as much as his literature does to the condition of philosophy. Whatever the exact balance we allot, the synthesis in No Exit is admirable. The play, of course, illustrates the Satrean thesis of the impossibility of human relations, but it would be nothing as drama unless we felt that it was an "abstraction blooded," a significant human action that we were seeing, not a mere theorem of despondency.
"Hell is other people"
As it is, the idea that "hell is other people" is fully embodied in the action: grows out of it; is not a mere legislative statement. Sartre's chilly hell is populated more than competently by Peter Bland's cast. Ray Hen-wood deserves special mention. As Garcin he seems somehow to physically assume the bilious aspect of the Sartrean anti-hero; to touch slime and to choke on a palpable metaphysical nausea. (And then a few minutes later he is all athletic wit and gesture in the Fry. Joseph Musaphia makes all that could be made of his sinister part.
Rosemary Croome-Johnson is for the most part convincingly shallow (though I wondered what exactly she was doing with her initial lines). Pat Evison as the lesbian, Ines, is a little disappointing, though her playing grows better as the play progresses. Until late in the play she seems a little perfunctory, even casual; not quite hard and unpleasant enough. Apart from several bad lapses in the translation (especially the use of some stilted inappropriate English slang forms), the production is well-planned, and the small arena nature of the production is very suitable. The actors uncomfortably breathe down the audience's collective neck. Hot and spiritually pustular, one watches.
Despite the reservation expressed at the beginning of this review. I enjoyed the Fry play. As the programme introduction quite acutely hints it is the more solid grounding in character that has made this play last better than perhaps any other of Fry's. Even here, though, the wit, at first amusing, begins to pall. Ingenious metaphor, at first impressive 'one eagerly, in the first flush of enthusiasm, searches for comparison . . . Jonson?), at length becomes mechanical, merely (not always impeccable) virtuosity. One realises that the massive figure of Jonson has nothing to do with it at all.
Fry is likely to suffer excessively from our disappointment and in some measure he deserves to for so calculatingly (and illicitly) arousing our expectations. But this need not worry us overmucn. Fry's place has been quite definitely allotted ("neither innovating nor directive") so that dangerous confusion is not likely to result. We shouldn't therefore let such considerations stand too much in the way of enjoying his very minor but quite definite virtues. These virtues (an affecting exuberance, and in this play at least, numerous passages of very clear and clean and pleasing wit), are for the most part well exhibited in the production.
Rosemary Croome-Johnson, if a little repetitive in gesture (her Luka in Arms and The Man carries over into both parts to some degree), does speak verse with point, flexibility and a charming timbre. Ray Hen-wood I have already mentioned as an actor of considerable potential. Pat Evison is better in the part of the earthy servant Doto than in the Sartre and exudes a comic largesse which makes a firm base for the play's pinnacles of wit. The production has the requisite speed (slowness, the slightest drag, would be disaster here) and is generally quite adequate.
Apart from my reservation about the pairing the only complaint I have to make is that Downstage is getting a bit too crowded. From where I was I had to contort myself and suffer pins and needles, a sore bottom and other agonies to get an angled and at times non-existent view of proceedings. Perhaps this plea (echoed, I am sure, by many) might be taken to heart.
Dinner (if you are eating there) is this time very good. The double-bill runs until April 1 and is recommended.