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The Playwright’s Playwrights: Look Back in Anger * 07 July 2012

Look Back In Anger

Rebecca Hall, Matt Ryan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Polly Stenham and Julian Wadham.
Photo by Dan Wooller. 

There is something to be said for the notion of pure performance - acting stripped down so the physical setting is discarded, leaving only the voice of those on a stage and your own imagination. If you were one of the lucky few who managed to snag a ticket to the one off reading of John Osbourne's renowned play 'Look Back in Anger' on Friday 6 July 2012 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London, pure performance was demonstrated for you in spades.

It's difficult to call this a review - since the play will never be performed again in this setting or form it would be churlish to attempt to do so. Instead, we'll describe and examine what we saw as best we can, as ultimately the reading served as a window into the actor's craft in a way we've possibly never seen before. The performance was part of The Royal Court at The Dukes of York's Playwright's Playwrights season, where a writer would pick an existing play of their choice and direct it in less than two days.  Look Back in Anger was chosen by Polly Stenham, an award winning writer whose first play 'That Face' featured Lindsey Duncan and Matt Smith in its first performance in 2007.  

The reading took the form of five actors sat on chairs on stage - the set actually dressed for a separate play performed every evening entitled 'Posh', a fact that is somewhat ironic considering the piece's subject matter. The ensemble took the form of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall (The Awakening; The Prestige; and the currently filming Iron Man 3), Matt Ryan (The Tudors, Torchwood), Anna Maxwell Martin (Becoming Jane, South Riding), and Julian Wadham (The Madness of King George, The Iron Lady). With a cast like that, we knew we were in for a bit of a treat, and thanks to the depth of the subject matter, no one disappointed. Osbourne's play is a ferocious, dark, moving and very funny examination of the young of the mid nineteen fifties in Britain. Children born during the Second World War, all the characters are fractured and directionless, and most importantly very, very bored with their lives. The play is of course famous for coining the phrase 'Angry Young Men', terminology that has entered the lexicon of both public life and popular culture, as well as bringing a depth of social realism to the stage that until it's first performance had never been attempted in such a manner.

As the lead character Jimmy, Benedict Cumberbatch gained the lion's share of the piece, as well as the greatest gamut of emotions. While it would be very simple for an actor to simply remain seated and read the lines by wrote off the page, Benedict was an animated presence through - though first impressions seemed against that, as at the start he simply lounged in his chair, crossed legs outstretched, with the script held directly in front of his face so no one in the audience could see him. But of course, this was all part of his portrayal of the character, for Jimmy when we meet him is reclining lazily, reading the Sunday papers. This theme of seated theatrical physicality stayed throughout the entire reading, with Benedict acting out the stage direction of the script, plus his own embellishments, as it went along. On numerous occasions you gained the sense of someone constrained by the requirement to sit, an obvious desire to be up and around that stage, thrashing and trashing it as Jimmy's self control slips and returns. As well as being furiously funny and angrily impassioned, some moments of the play allowed Benedict to demonstrate his famous ability to cry on cue, as well as his gifted vocal and impression skills, changing his accent through numerous permutations and countries as Jimmy's comedically bitter rage continued to spiral out of control. There was one other little residual thought that came over us having seen Benedict's reading of Jimmy - this would have been Sherlock Holmes had he been born without his intellect but retaining his desire for new experiences and the resultant frustrations when he couldn't attain them.

While none of the other cast were required to perform the sheer passion that Benedict imbued into his reading, all were superb. Rebecca Hall played Jimmy's wife Alison with gentle sweetness and a bubbling, latent frustration and fear at her husband. Most notable was her interaction with Benedict, at times giving the sense that despite being sat a couple of feet apart, both could have been performing the play properly through their very vocal work. Benedict and Rebecca are of course playing husband and wife in the upcoming BBC/HBO First World War Miniseries 'Parade's End', due to screen later in 2012. We were already looking forward to the series immensely, but having seen the pair perform so intimately together onstage our expectations for the Mammoth Screen production are now simply through the roof.

As Cliff, Matt Ryan is an unknown to us, but he imbued the role with the suitable degree of level headedness, nobility and sweetness that makes him a perfect counter to Jimmy's nature and the situation the household finds itself in. While not above joining in with Jimmy, and doing his best to be a strong friend to all in the cramped house, Cliff requires a degree of quiet realism compared to his counterpart's ferociously changeable moods, and he is consistently the better man - he clearly loves Alison in his own way, and shows it physically apart from the ultimate, sexual stage. Matt gave the reading its caring heart and a sense of normalcy against the chaos of the emotions of others and the events that ensue.    

Anna Maxwell Martin is one of those memorable actresses that appears in numerous productions in small roles but makes a distinct impact. The same was true here. Absent for the entire first act, her role as Alison's friend Helena allowed her to exhibit a degree of the true ice queen initially, her steely and quiet hatred of Jimmy palpable, before softening in a manner that would have been shocking to an audience of the mid nineteen fifties. She is ultimately a strong person who realises the error of her actions of her own volition, and is thus a catalyst for Jimmy to do the same by the close.

The company was rounded out by Julian Wadham, playing both Alison's father Colonel Redfern and narrating the majority of the stage direction from the script. A man by his own admission who is out of touch with 'the modern world' - or more than likely, by his title, this Post-war era - Redfern, though brief, is a role that requires a degree of sympathy and warmth, and Julian imbued his reading with plenty.

The sense throughout the entire performance was a distinct sense of pleasure from the entire cast, all enjoying the experience and each other's reading of the words on the page immensely, listening and watching when they were not reading themselves. This performance of Look Back in Anger was a truly unique experience for all involved, and us as an audience. The chance to see actors performing at this level after only rehearsing two days beforehand makes us long for a full production with this ensemble, but we'll content ourselves with the chance to see Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall portray another fracturing marriage and all the attendant emotions later this year in Parade's End. As it was, this reading gave us that true window into how actors approach material near the start, before it can be refined into a full production for an audience, night after night. It was a fantastic privilege of an afternoon, and provided an electrifying experience.