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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The Revenger’s Tragedy
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Almeida, London N1
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Ten Tiny Toes
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Mummy’s little soldiers go to war in a new political drama.

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.

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis