Review – The Enchantment, National Theatre

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Zubin Varla and Nancy Carroll in The Enchantment

After a string of disappointments the big question hovering over this evening was: would the West End Whingers finally finish something they started?

Andrew had been fortunate enough to enjoy both acts of Lady Be Good last week, but poor Phil has seen only half of each of the last three plays he’s attended.

So the stakes were high for the National’s production of The Enchantment by Victoria Benedictsson in a new version by Clare Bayley.

There were two causes for cautious optimism.

  1. Benedictsson is a fascinating figure in Swedish culture – a frightfully modern 19th century writer upon whom Ibsen reputedly based the character of Hedda Gabler and who apparently inspired Strindberg to write Miss Julie. The Enchantment is part autobiographical, based on her affair with the influential Danish critic, scholar and – judging from the play – complete tosser Georg Brandes.
  2. The director of this production is Paul Miller whose Elling the Whingers lapped up.

But cautious optimism gave way to foreboding as they entered the dreadful Cottesloe Theatre which is surely one of the worst theatre spaces in the whole of London especially if – like the Whingers – you buy the cheap seats.

Anyway, no, it wasn’t traverse staging this time; it was theatre in the round – well, rectangle if you’re pedantic (and we are). What is it about designers that want to focus the audience’s attention on the crowd sitting across the stage as they yawn, scratch, read programmes and fumble in their bags? Is it because they know the play is going to be bad and they want to direct your gaze to something likely to be more interesting?

There was also some sort of projection on the “back” wall. Phil couldn’t work it out at all: was it a pug dog or a cauliflower or Casper the friendly ghost or was it someone displaying a deformed orifice?

Anyhoo, the Whingers’ spirits rose a tad when they noticed an on-stage stove with a sign on it warning that “This stove is hot”. Has the National been hit with lawsuits recently? After seeing an audience member come close to losing an eye in the excellent Saint Joan perhaps they are taking no chances. With Phil’s food on-stage thesis being rushed through to completion in order to avoid further plagiarism of it, he’s hoping to turn up at a theatre soon and see the sign “this production may contain nuts”.

Anyway, as if at an invisible signal the audience’s chatter stopped. For a moment, the production had the audience in the palm of its hand but unfortunately the play didn’t start so the chatter rose again.

The stove’s sign was removed. How would the latecomers know it was hot, mused Phil. He leaned over the balcony rail in anticipation of a potential lawsuit.

The play began but Phil could barely be expected to listen to the words as cake and biscuits were produced almost immediately. The stale looking cake (ready sliced – presumably to avoid the need for signs saying “these knives are sharp”) looked like it had been hanging around a while. But the stove was indeed an exciting new dimension as the kettle of water that had been sitting on it was used to make a pot of tea, generating genuine steam in the process

As the play trundled on the Whingers settled down to try and enjoy the aerial view of the back of Louise Strandberg’s (Nancy Carroll) head. This was a worthwhile task as it was a full 25 minutes before she pulled herself up off the sofa and they finally saw the leading lady’s face instead of her top knot.

A bouquet of flowers was brought on and Phil’s interest peaked again at the danger. What if a petal were to fall onto the stage or into the audience and someone were to slip on it? He hadn’t seen any warning signs about these. Could Nicholas Hytner be looking at a one and a half million pound lawsuit?

Anyway, the play was about a rather bohemian woman living in Paris who was in love with a magnetic lothario sculptor named Gustave.

Now, as the title of the play suggests, Gustave is meant to be charismatic – he is famed for seducing women and then dispensing with them. But with Zubin Varla‘s stilted posturing and his habit of inserting pauses into every line (“You could make a man … very happy”) the Whingers wondered if Harold Pinter had been drafted in as a “text … advisor” to re-punctuate all of Gustave’s lines.

Anyway, he certainly didn’t enchant the Whingers. This in spite of the fact that he describes himself as “restless and neurotic”causing Phil to why Andrew didn’t identify with the character instantly.

There was one moment of empathy: Gustave is described as “luring them in, then discards them”. This was one line Phil could identify with as Andrew is always luring him to the theatre and then discarding him at the interval.

In an attempt to distract themselves from the hideous whining and bickering on the stage, the Whingers began to study the audience opposite them. Heads were resting on hands, a woman in the front row tried to look at her watch without the actors noticing. Three out of five people in one row alone appeared to be asleep; John Simm would have been furious.

Two women across the stage sat very elegantly, trying valiantly to stay awake, their hair teased to within an inch of its life, Phil began to wonder where their third Beverly sister was.

Then Phil reflected how many people wear trainers to the theatre these days.

Occasionally the odd line would enter the Whingers’ consciousness – “What a vain idiot I was to give you my bust” brought forth guffaws from them, much to the annoyance of the audience members who were woken as a a result.

You can guess the rest. In fact, the Cottesloe’s cloakroom has probably never been busier during an interval. We counted 20 people leaving and the Whingers like to think that they have had a hand in liberating theatre-goers from the notion that if you’ve paid for your seat you have to sit through the whole thing, even if you are not enjoying it. This is not true. You can leave any time you like and although it’s better manners to wait for the interval there are some situations in which an even earlier exit is entirely justified.

The Whingers stood outside the entrance counting the people making a bid for freedom. Each face had a slight smile of blessed relief playing on it. They weren’t angry to leave; they were happy and thrilled at their own sense of empowerment.

And that, for the Whingers, was reward enough. A very successful evening.


23 Responses to “Review – The Enchantment, National Theatre”

  1. City Slicker Says:

    Oh no! Not another NT flop. What a pity. Hytner must be relieved at Saint Joan’s success. But surely something is going horribly wrong here? Why are they getting it to so wrong so often? Bah hum bug. Well, at least the Royal Festival Hall bar is good as an interval consolation prize!

  2. Josh Says:

    But Lord Whingely, I have tickets for this tomorrow and I love Nancy Carroll and so I was all excited! What do I do?! I trust you more than my own mother.

  3. Oh, Josh. How much do you trust your mother really? Go and enjoy it. Ignore us. We don’t know what we’re talking about.

  4. TimW Says:

    I’m just back from seeing this and am about to blog it so I probably shouldn’t have read this first.
    I’ll just report that the play picks up slightly in the second half but that half contains an appalling piece of blocking (I think that’s the term). Also I only saw one person asleep (although she is somebody who seems to go to the theatre as much as me).

  5. M/N Says:

    Another classic review from the Whingers – please keep them coming!!

    TimW: speaking as someone who knows about these things, I can confirm that ‘blocking’ is indeed the term used by some people when describing/directing the physical staging of a scene, though why it’s called that I will never know…thoughts?

  6. Sean Says:

    Another NT Flop! What like Philistines and Saint Joan recently (and The Hothouse I think), or Faust, Measure for Measure, Iphigenia, Buried Child, The Mandate, A Funny Thing.., Pillowman, The History Boys, His Dark Materials, On the Shore of the Wide World, Aristocrats (which I liked!), Pillars of the Community, Corum Boy, Burn/Chatroom/Citezenship, The Seafarer, Waves, Democracy and The Permanent Way? I’m no Hytner cheerleader, but the man does have the ‘right to fail’ on occasion (and yes, there have been several). All in all not a bad tenure so far I think.

    As for leaving at the interval, yes you have the right, and I sometimes do it too. But harsh judgments can sometimes be blunted (and sometimes reversed) in the second half!

  7. Sean – you make a very good point when you point out that “harsh judgments can sometimes be blunted in the second half”. This is, of course, a real risk and is one of the main reasons that going back for the second act can be a very bad idea.

  8. City Slicker Says:

    Ouch Sean!! I said flop because the NT IS running a series of veritable flops of late ‘Rafta Rafta’ ‘Hothouse’ ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ ‘Philistines; ‘Landscape with Weapon’ ….the only redeemer (sorry for pun) being Saint Joan. Sorry if you are a Hytner bedfellow but I am a disappointed customer. And Faust I attribute to Punchdrunk’s genius not Hytner’s.

  9. Andrew Field Says:

    “And Faust I attribute to Punchdrunk’s genius not Hytner’s.”

    How very generous of you City Slicker, but it a lot of courage to support those kind of big, adventurous projects. It’s to Hytner’s credit that he did so, as he has done for others. Regardless of his direct input he is the AD of the venue so is finally responsible for what goes on there.

    Hytner deserves congratulation for promoting it (and them as a company) just as he deserves credit for St Joan despite (at the last check) it being written a little before he was at the NT.

  10. Helen Smith Says:

    Is this a spat?

  11. We are very much hoping so. There’s no show without punch(drunk)

  12. Josh Says:

    Sir Whingealot, I enjoyed the play more than you, but I didn’t love it. I think sitting in a very fortunate position (the front row, directly behind the chaise where Ms Carroll lay) made the play more intimate and involving, and she is one of my favourite actresses so that made the whole thing easy to sit through. The elderly gentleman next to me fell asleep, which I didn’t mind until he let out a loud snore, and I could hear more on their way. So I nudged him awake. I completely agree with your comments on Zubin Varla, though – totally uncharismatic and unattractive, and your comment about Pinter possibly being their “text…advisor” is total lolz and possibly true.

  13. Sean Says:

    I second what Andrew says on Hytner. Artistic Director is responsible for all output in the end.

    City Slicker, how are you judging these ‘veritable flops’! I didn’t love them all, but the shows you mentioned have either done well with the critics, at the box office or both (in the case of AMOLAD, maybe sparking controversy is its achievement). How can Landscape with Weapon or Philistines possibly be called failures?

    I personally (i.e what I enjoyed) judge four out of the five shows you cite as successful to varying degrees.

    I’d only agree to being a Hytner bedfellow in the biblical sense, at a push.

    P.S: See the Enchantment on Tuesday, so I can fully comment on this corker soon! Maybe I’ll meet Nick during the interval….

  14. @ Josh: Glad you enjoyed it. Now are you going to apologise to your mother?

    @ the rest of you: this really isn’t the place for intellectual debate, thank you. We’ve already had to tick Dr Eldridge off for that in the past and anyway we’ve already settled the Hytner question,

  15. Dr Eldridge Says:

    Have you read the new Harry Potter yet?

  16. Awww. Dr E! Now you’re being satirical, aren’t you?

  17. westendwhinger Says:

    That’s the real reason why Andrew had to rush off at the interval. The latest Potter sits on his bedside table, though of course Phil has spoilt the end for him (Harry gets burnt as a witch). It was all in the original review but Andrew edited it out for some strange reason, just can’t face reality..guess that’s why he loves JK so much.

  18. X Says:

    Just to be pedantic:
    ‘cake and biscuits were produced almost immediately’ – there is no cake in this play. Perhaps you mistook the sliced lemon for cake? After the interval sugared almonds feature but are not eaten.

    ‘There was also some sort of projection on the “back” wall. Phil couldn’t work it out at all’ – This not a projection – it is a painted gauze of Rodin’s ‘La Danaide’.

  19. Oooh, we love pedantry. Thanks, X.

    Just between you and me, I didn’t notice any cake either but Phil was adamant. Sometimes he has these visions – a bit like Saint Joan – except that his mostly involve cake. Hence his are less likely to alter the course of history or result in beatification.

    Thanks for the clarification on the Rodin. Phil reckons he’s an artist so he should have got that but – to be fair – it’s not very visible from seats V13 and 14. But then nothing is.

  20. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    There was definitely cake! Methinks the NT bakery is too pushed at the moment producing nightly Christmas cakes for The Hothouse and they’ve dropped it due to the baking pressure. I tried to buy some glace cherries on the South Bank only the other day.. and could I find any?

  21. Sean Says:

    Sorcha Cusack was in the audience tonight (or was outside the theatre on her day off, I couldn’t see her in the audience from level 2 row V).

    The water from the stove hardly turned those tea leaves yellow, let alone brown. I wouldn’t have liked to drink that muck (she only poured a tiny amount in the cup though).

    That illustration on the back wall was a crouching woman, which also doubled as a bit of a mountain range I think (or it looked that way in the Sweden scenes). The inspiration for this downtrodden woman was explained during the second act!

    My review:

  22. Sean Says:

    By the way, forgot to say that the 4 people next to me (2 seperate couples) left at the interval. Noting to do with me guv’.

  23. Graham Says:

    Andrew – please lend Phil your copy of Paradise Towers then he can have seen the whole family. The last time I saw her on stage she was acting opposite Paul McGann. How’s that for a spooky Whovian connection? Red Kangs are best.

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