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.

Martin Knoller/Wikimedia
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror