Reviewed: Joe Wright’s “Trelawny of the Wells”

Theatre itself takes centre stage in “Atonement” director’s first play.

“These roses are the bane of my life,” Ron Cook cried last Friday night at the Donmar Warehouse. His character, Mrs Mossop, never made such a complaint. Nowhere in Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells (1898), even with “most respectful additions and ornamentation” by Patrick Marber (2013), is the proprietess especially concerned with uncooperative props. Cook’s exasperation, collecting up the roses that had scattered as he unpacked the scenery at the beginning of the play, is a symptom of Joe Wright’s theatrical preoccupations: ornamentation, authenticity, class, performativity. It also tickled everyone in the audience, less than five minutes in.

The eponymous Trelawny is a rose too: Rose Trelawny, first lady of the “Barridge Wells Theatre”, a girl preparing to marry up and purge herself of dramatic affectations, making ready for reserve, embroidery and after-dinner whist. This involves saying goodbye to her friends. She must leave the Wells' company, their songs and frippery. But a life of refinement does nothing for the young actress, embodied with saccharine enthusiasm by Amy Morgan. She longs to be back at the Wells, but soon finds that the mainstays of her trade – pantomime delivery, music, melodrama – are becoming outmoded, less sensitive to the needs of an evolving middle class and its desire to achieve “respectability”.

Trelawny of the Wells, which opened at the weekend, is Atonement and Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright’s first stage production. However, it was in Anna Karenina (2012) that he first put theatre on stage. The decision to film Tom Stoppard's Tolstoy adaptation within the confines of a proscenium arch was much discussed. Wright has a personal stake in theatre history. He was raised in the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, which his parents built from the rubble of a derelict temperance hall in the early 1960s. Pinero also grew up in Islington. Both were taken to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre as children, and both have used their work to question the uses and boundaries of staged drama. Though less revolutionary than his Norwegian counterpart Henrik Ibsen, Pinero wanted to discuss morality, class and gender politics in his work (The Magistrate, recently staged at the National Theatre, did not take this element as seriously as Wright).

Part-way through the second act, the backdrop collapses to the floor. The rococo interior folds to reveal the bare brick walls of the Donmar Warehouse, previously a vat room for storing brewery hops. But this time, unlike the roses, it doesn’t happen by mistake. With it emerges a company preparing for a new kind of theatre, as envisioned by the earnest playwright Tom Wrench (Daniel Kaluuya).

The play flirts with ideas about recognisable voices, fully-developed characters and well-proportioned scenery, but does so while mythologising a period in London’s history when patrons, actors, money and fashion gave each theatre its own house style. It is best not to make too much of the auteur Wrench, inspired by the Victorian playwright T W Robertson. Wright’s production is voluptuous, makes much of familiar character-types and is no stranger to song. The two old men in the row behind me kept on saying “indeed” rather than laughing, which wound me up. But the play’s loose generosity with the script, the energy of the cast and intelligent set design by Hildegard Bechtler, pulls it through.

The Donmar is a small theatre. Sitting in the circle you are as close to being “on” stage as any audience is likely to be. The company seem full of affection for the roles they play, and for the history they appear to represent. And yet it is the scattered roses, the doubled-up cross-gender parts, the over-sized plastic food that makes its most forceful point. Trelawny does not claim to represent the truth, but a version of it.

Joe Wright. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide