Theatre and film work in very different ways, and normally I prefer the medium of cinema. Recently though, I watched a film in the afternoon then went to a play in the evening, and was very glad to have the latter to look forward to. The film was Catwoman (Pitof, 2004), widely reviled as a stain upon the generally admired genre of the superhero film. That revilement is well deserved as Catwoman is a tawdry, messy, poorly edited, badly shot, horribly written, abysmally performed torture session of a motion picture. Within twenty minutes I wanted to strangle the director; by the end, I thought that would be too kind.
Happily, that evening I went to see Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path at the Sewell Barn Theatre, performed by the Sewell Barn company. It proved an excellent piece of theatre that highlights some of the differences between the two media, both in terms of production and consumption. A film script is written, or adapted, for a specific release, whereas plays, though they can be written for specific productions, also exist in their own right and anyone can do a new version of it, assuming they can obtain the rights. Therefore, I am happy to report that the only criticism I would make of Flare Path relates specifically to the play/script itself, rather than any choices or actions of the director, stage designer or actors, as it was hardly something that could be omitted or altered.
Rattigan’s one misstep is the under-developed reference to the acting profession. The Hollywood actor Peter Kyle, played with wavering bluster by Paul Goldsmith, is a former lover of Patricia Graham (Gemma Johnston), née Warren, now married to Teddy Graham (Luke Owen). He comes to the hotel in Lincolnshire to win Pat back, and she must choose between this romantic figure and her pilot husband. The love triangle is a great device, but there is no reason for their romantic history to be based on the stage, as this barely informs the action of Flare Path itself. References to playing a part and never being oneself or expressing true emotions could be interesting, but these are not related to the context of the War or the fear and concern that runs through most of the characters. Peter’s outsider status is obvious yet under-developed, and the drama could have been heightened by Peter being less of a contrast to Teddy, making Pat’s decision more difficult. As it is, her conflict is less a choice between duty and romance, but between a desire that is simple and one that is complex.
Not that this writing infelicity is a barrier, as Johnston is mesmerising as a woman in turmoil. Even if a choice is underwritten, the important thing is that the character with the choice must be sympathetic to a viewer, and Pat was in clear and sympathetic turmoil throughout much of the play. Her inner conflict serves as a microcosm of the wider conflict in which the play is set. Director John Holden states that the “The War is like an extra character off stage, always present and threatening”, and indeed its presence is never forgotten, impacting upon the minds, hearts and souls of both characters and audience. This is most apparent in the play’s standout emotional scene, when Owen delivers a heart-wrenching account of Teddy’s terror during his last mission. Post-traumatic-stress-disorder is familiar to those who take an interest in war, combat veterans and their representations on stage and screen. While it may have been called shell-shock, or a “funk” back then, it is impressive to see this difficult subject, and the cultural attitude towards it, presented with such sensitivity. Teddy’s suffering contrasts well with Pat’s, Owen and Johnston conveying a relationship that is still in-development but can grow through further time and experience shared together, if that is what she decides.
Other performances were equally strong – of particular note is James Thomson as Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky. Saddled with a comedy accent and limited English, the Count could have been little more than a caricature. Yet every time he was on-stage left me in no doubt that I was seeing a rounded, developed human being, a man out of place with a makeshift family, alienated despite the kindness and support around him. Although he seems a minor character, the affection that the others feel for him is infectious and their concern for his safety palpable; I reacted quite emotionally when his fate was revealed.
Truly, there was not a bad note from a single performer, and Holden demonstrates what is essential about multiple points of action. When two people are talking in one part of the stage, and someone in another area is reacting, the one who is reacting must always be worth looking at. This is the difference between viewing film and viewing theatre: the film text directs the attention of the viewer through different shots and cuts, but such control is not possible in theatre. Though I could focus on one piece of action on-stage, at many points I glanced over to somebody else, and never was I taken out of the drama when I did so. Holden could have cleared the stage except for those talking, or have those not directly involved remain frozen, but instead everyone on stage felt active, engaged and relatable to. It may be a cliché to say that I forgot I was watching actors performing, but I genuinely did. For two and a bit hours, I considered myself in 1942 with people engaged in the War, both in combat and awaiting news of combat, feeling their fear, fortune, amusement and anguish along the way. Definitely no strangling required.
I guess I’d better see the film adaptation, The Way to the Stars (Anthony Asquith, 1945), at some point.