Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 23rd May 2019
Now I’ll be honest, until I started taking this theatre malarkey seriously, I had only the faintest idea of what Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town, was about. And even going in to this production at the Open Air I confess to some scepticism as to the reasons why it is so highly regarded. I am a sucker for “meta-theatre”, fiddling around with the realms of what is possible on stage and breaking all the naturalistic rules of theatre, but this still sounded a little too, well, American and homespun, and I couldn’t quite see how it would elevate itself it to something more profound. Still this is what the experts told me it would do and I, for one, choose not to ignore the experts, (especially when it comes to, for example, cardiac surgery – for, without one such expert, you wouldn’t be reading this).
Well I can report that the experts, once again, do know what they are talking about. Written in 1938 OT tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corner in the years 1901 to 1913, (I gather the photo above is taken from the original Broadway production). The play is set in the theatre in which it is being performed, designed here by Rosie Elnile as simply a bank of temporary seats at the back of the Open Air stage, and we have a narrator in the form of the theatre’s stage manager (Laura Rodgers) who guides us through the characters and the scenes, addresses us directly, introduces specialist “speakers” and fields “questions” from the audience. With the exception of one scene the cast is in modern dress and there is minimal use of props, largely just a couple of table and chairs to symbolise the two main households, the Webb’s and the Gibbs’s, and plenty of miming.
Thornton Wilder apparently insisted that the play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely,” a request that director Ellen McDougall, AD at the Gate, sticks to with the exception of shifting the “action” from 1938 to an even more timeless today.
Act 1 centres on the daily life of the town, waking up to a normal day in 1901. We get lectures on the history and geography of the town, (one of many reasons why the swot Tourist took to the play), and we meet the main protagonists Frank Gibbs (Karl Collins), the town doctor, his wife Julia (Pandora Colin) and their two children, sporty, tearaway son George (Arthur Hughes) and younger sister Rebecca (Miriam Nyarko), Charles Webb (Tom Edden), editor of the local paper, wife Myrtle (Thusitha Jayasundera) and their bookish daughter Emily (Francesca Henry) and younger brother Wally (I think Tumo Reestang in this performance). Act II concentrates on the courtship and wedding day of Emily and George in 1904. The mood changes in Act III, in 1913, when we are taken to the cemetery outside Grover’s Corner and see who has passed in the intervening years including Emily, who returns to life to look back, regretfully, on her 12th birthday.
This is when the deep stuff about how to live life to the full when it is so short, and how we are all connected in time and place, and out into the cosmos, is let loose. You would be forgiven for thinking this might come over all schmaltzy and, trust me, the cyclical Tourist is ever alert to such manipulation. It does not though and that is where the play most confounds. It was a pretty hot day at the Open Air, and the Tourist foolishly swapped shade for view, and the matinee crowd was the usual bunch of us old and economically inactive and the reluctant school-teens. So I can’t pretend this was some massive communal epiphany. Nonetheless the messages that Thornton Wilder wraps up in his deliberately “simple” meta-play do resonate and I now understand why the play is so highly regarded and so oft performed especially in the US.
I can see how some might not want to go beyond the moral homage to a simpler, more “authentic” past, with a central love story and a sad ending, but it is also hard to avoid the way Wilder stretches, examines and undercuts this surface reading and not just through formal experimentation. I have banged on before about how American art, in its broadest sense, explored in the inter-war years the dichotomy of modern, urban America and its mythic, rural past. This seems to me to spring from the same well. There may not be an explicit nod to the darkness which was to befall Europe, from which the US largely escaped, but there are, as there were so effectively in Annie Baker’s John, ghosts from the Civil War past as well as references to the coming depopulation and the stultifying effects of conformity to home, hearth, gender roles and church.
Some of the proper reviews have a bit of a dig at the production precisely because of its fidelity to Mr Wilder’s original intention. I disagree though, as I say, not having seen it before meant there was no novelty to wear off. Ellen McDougall is not a director who fights shy of radical theatre, (she was assistant to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott and her first production at the Gate, The Unknown Island was a metaphorical riot), but here, outside of the diverse 19 strong cast, the female stage manager, casual clothes and a few, well placed, choruses, as I say, she seems to play it pretty straight.
I suppose you could go all gung ho and start meta-ing the meta and conjuring up all sorts of allusions to darker times. (What is it with everyone in the theatre aching for contemporary relevance and proof that we live in dangerous times anyway. I am not saying our world today doesn’t have some Grade A wankers in positions of power but I would rather live here, now, than as a slave in C5 BCE Athens, a factory worker in C19 Manchester or a homosexual in Nazi Germany). I also accept that this might not, unusually, be a work that benefits from the Open Air setting, though Act III might be enhanced by the twilight of an evening show.
But I see it worked for Billers in the Guardian and that’s good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Laura Rodgers who stood out in Pressure, Rules for Living, Winter Solstice and Tipping the Velvet and I was also struck by Francesca Henry who appeared in another production directed by Ellen McDougall, The Wolves. Karl Collins and Arthur Hughes also managed to create character beyond imitation. This is though, an ensemble piece, and the whole cast stepped up.
(P.S. I was never going to be unaffected by the wedding of a young Gibbs, some three weeks after the real thing).