Draw near, good people

Frayn's verse drama about an eccentric theatre impresario is a masterpiece


In his seventy-fifth year Michael Frayn has produced a minor masterpiece, and maybe not so minor either. I'd guess Afterlife is the best verse drama in English since T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral was performed in 1935, when Frayn was not quite two. I am aware it will not be to everyone's taste. Some will consider it a self-referential theatre piece, about a piece of theatre. Others will find the poetry an obstruction. The night I went I noticed a few empty seats for the second half. But judging by the lack of shuffling and coughing, most of the audience was hooked on its perfect iambic tetrameters and the curious biography they relate.

The play's subject, the Austrian theatre director and impresario Max Reinhardt, is admittedly recondite. Even Frayn had barely heard of him before he happened to find himself staying at Leopoldskron, in Salzburg, the very grand schloss Reinhardt owned before the war. But Reinhardt's present obscurity, which belies the international fame he once enjoyed, may be an advantage to the play. If you have not heard of him you will soon wonder why, since this was a man who once staged a musical in London with a cast of 2,000 and an orchestra of 200. More importantly, you will not know how his story ends, whether, despite being Jewish, he will enter a Faustian pact with Hitler, or make an ultimate career sacrifice.

Hitler's holiday villa was on the other side of the German-Austrian border and overlooked the Leopoldskron, where much of the play's action takes place. We are aware that the two men watch each other. It is an aspect of the playwright's confidence that the comparison between the two is never explicitly made (indeed Hitler's name is uttered, I think, only once). Sitting in the audience, you make it yourself, however. Both were dictators, Reinhardt of his company, Hitler of his country. Both were choreographers, Reinhardt of the stage, Hitler of the political rally and battlefield. Both were fantasists, unable to distinguish between reality and their dreams (or nightmares) and determined to fuse the two.

As the play opens and large marble pillars move towards the front of the stage, you imagine you may be witnessing a triumph of Nazi architecture. Instead, this is Salzburg Cathedral and the demagogic orator is Reinhardt himself, reciting lines we will hear many times: "Draw near, good people, all I say, Give heed while we perform our play." He appears to be welcoming us. In fact, he is running through a modern morality play called Everyman with its putative sponsor, the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. His next passage, "And we stage it very simply", is in prose and we are relieved, but soon the poetry leaks from the stage into the wings and beyond. The noises off, in this case, are usually verse. But since Reinhardt's ambition is to melt frontiers, not as Hitler did (of course), but between art and reality, the seepage is entirely appropriate. Frayn's play is an almost perfect fusion of form and content, and the fusion largely accounts for its beauty.

Largely but not entirely - for director Michael Blakemore and set designer Peter Davison bestow a classical simplicity to the production which is beautiful, too. So is Roger Allam's portrayal of Reinhardt as a gentle eccentric full of mellifluous bombast, an innocent who may well have no meaningful existence outside his chosen world.

As to whether the play's themes are big enough to support the portentousness of verse, I have no doubt they are. One theme is death. So far as art goes, its randomness has never chilled me so much as when the skeletal figure of Death claims Reinhardt's younger aide Katie, played as the impresario's foil by the spike-edged Peter Forbes. The other is the supremacy of art, how, even at its most kitsch, it can endure the cruellest oppression. Afterlife's final scene is a heavenly-set apologia for what has gone before, which recalls the epilogue to A Midsummer Night's Dream. It movingly asserts that these forgotten Austrian showmen and women endure, if only as matchstick people "tricked out with words we never said" by Frayn. Draw near good people, see this play - before it transfers, as transfer it may, across the pond to old Broadway.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.