Toiling with Cressida

Theatre - Kate Kellaway doesn't warm to Nicholas Wright's new production

What is Michael Gambon doing reclining on a cloud? He is chatting about death and likening it to some "hideous long soliloquy". It takes a while to establish that we're in the 17th century, sharing the thespian hallucinations of John Shank, a dying actor. The clouds are no more than a sick man's scenery and will soon give way, for there's nothing overcast about Nicholas Wright's imagination. His new play, Cressida, is clear, witty and cool - much too cool for my taste.

Wright's subject is the boy actors who played the roles of women on the stage of King Charles. Not much is known about them. Ben Jonson wrote an Epitaph on Salomon Pavy, a boy actor, but such tributes were rare. A great opportunity, then, for Wright to step in and invent, unoppressed by research. Nicholas Hytner is in charge and takes us back to this chapter of theatrical history with characteristic fluency and grace. And Wright could not hope for a better cast, with pretty Stephen Hammerton (Michael Legge) as its star turn. Hammerton talks like a choirboy, as if, through perfect enunciation, his speech might metamorphose into song. He offers to play "First Fairy" in A Midsummer Night's Dream - and when you hear his ludicrously RP fairy in action, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. He can't act to save his life. Or can he?

The plot thickens when John Shank undertakes to coach Stephen as Cressida, in the hope that he will be head-hunted by a rival theatre company. The idea is that Stephen will master Cressida, but remain incapable of acting any other role and thus bring ruin to Shank's rivals. By far the most interesting and moving scene in the play is that in which John Shank tries to teach Stephen how to act. Michael Gambon has, until this moment, turned in an affected performance, fluctuating between crude and "refained" [sic] speech. But here he comes into his own, and seems to care for the first time. His gestures suggest that an audience can be stirred from the bottom up, like one of the soups he makes for his boys. He urges Stephen to speak "as though no one had ever done it before". Each word, he explains, letting his fancy run on, must be like "the first apple of the year". There is magic in hearing Stephen change and Shakespeare's words change with him, as he gets better at his lines. It's like watching a blurred picture come into focus.

But there's a twist here, too, for Stephen will eventually find his own way of acting - a way that incorporates his girlishness and betrays Shank's tutelage for ever. Stephen is an actor before his time, innocently modern. He knows about costumes and make-up. He asks his hero, who plays Titania (Daniel Brocklebank), why his make-up is so "cakey". Titania, otherwise known as John Honeyman, sits there looking beautiful and disaffected in a golden frock, smoking a long pipe. He doesn't want to debate imperfections, he will have no truck with anything that is not a compliment.

Bob Crowley has designed wonderful quarters for the boys and Shank. They sit in a candle-lit room of sealing-wax red, and eat their foul soup in a room with a bear suit that hangs above them like a threat. Stephen looks as soulful as a figure on a tomb, and reveals to Shank what he seems not quite to understand himself, that his parents abandoned him when they realised that he was homosexual. But Stephen's greatest love is the theatre.

Plays about theatre are always a gamble: they can seem in-house, exclusive, self-indulgent. Cressida escapes this charge entirely. It is moving to hear John Honeyman describing the "stolen time" in which theatre happens, time that an audience can only get at through an actor. It is an idea Titania might almost have dreamt up herself. Wright's language is always eloquent and accomplished, and his anachronisms never jar. But it is the love of theatre that gives the play such heart as it has. Elsewhere, the play is emotionally under-developed: we do not learn enough about any of the characters to care about them. Shank's history is tacked on untidily (he once betrayed the boy actor, Salomon Pavey, and in his demented last days, Salomon and Stephen become confused in his mind), and a bond between Stephen and Shank is spoken of, but never convinces. At the end, Shank's wry apotheosis - a return to the cardboard clouds - seems merely arch. There are moments when Cressida seems seduced by itself - a vehicle for pretty boys without enough emotional fuel to stay on the road. It touches on, but does not fully investigate, what it means to play a woman. And I often felt that, as a woman, I was not the play's ideal audience.

Cressida is at the Albery Theatre, London, until 10 June (020-7369 1740)

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?