Candide and Summerfolk

Royal National Theatre (London, England)

October 1999

Ed Farolan

When excellence in theatre is mentioned, it is always England that comes to my mind. And this was precisely the experience I had as I watched Candide and Summerfolk performed by the Royal National Theatre of London, England.

The NT, as it is known in England, is a "theatre for the whole nation". But I would go further and say it is a theatre for the world because they not only produce plays by authors from all over the world but also tour different global stages with their plays. Under the direction of Trevor Nunn, the NT ensemble not only tours all of England but also worldwide. A company is currently in New York with Patrick Marber's Closer at the Music Box, and in the past, they have toured different theatres around the world. Hopefully, they could come and perform at our own Vancouver Playhouse or Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Both Candide and Summerfolk are presently being performed at the Olivier theatre, named after Sir Laurence Olivier who had conceived of the idea of ensemble acting. All actors in the Company play different roles in the different plays during the season. For example, Robert Burt who played Don Isacar in Candide also played as the Complaining Actor in Summerfolk; Ceri Ann Gregory who was the Minister's wife and the Woman of Venice in Candide played the next day as the Servant in Summerfolk, and Gabrielle Jourdan as the Courtesan and Woman of Venice in Candide playing Sonya in Summerfolk. But I was impressed by Beverly Klein who stood out and drew laughs from the audience for her delightful character roles as The Old Woman in Candide and again as Olga Dudakova in Summerfolk.

The National Theatre on the banks of the Thames contains three separate theatres seating nearly 2,500. I only had the chance to see The open-stage Olivier where both Candide and Summerfolk are presently being done. The other two theatres are the proscenium stage Lyttleton and the Cottlesloe, a simple and adaptable rectangular room.

Candide which opened at the Olivier last April 13th is a three and a half hour musical adapted by Hugh Wheeler in a new version by John Caird from Voltaire's novel of the same title. Music was composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein.

This satirical operetta by Bernstein dates from the mid-1950s, a period Bernstein describes as "everything that America stood for seemed to be on the verge of being ground under the heel of Senator Joseph McCarthy...the time of the Hollywood blacklist". But it was playwright Lillian Hellman , one of the lyricists of this operetta, who had suffered more during this McCarthy era, being identified as a communist by the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1951, refusing to name names and declaring "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."

Hellman and Bernstein would surely have been delighted to see the success of Candide today, particularly by the this excellent NT ensemble. The actors were superb, and Director John Caird, assisted by NT's Artistic Director Trevor Nunn, did a magnificent job in the play's mise-en-scene, thrilling and delighting an audience who shouted "bravos" and were on their feet during curtain call.

Summerfolk, also at the Olivier, opened last September 3rd. The play, directed by Trevor Nunn with Fiona Buffini, is based on Maxim Gorky's play of the same title, with a new version by Nick Dear. This three and half hour drama was being written by Gorky while Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard was being rehearsed by the Moscow Art Theatre. Critic Ronald Bryden refers to this play as "The Cherry Orchard's Heirs" because, undoubtedly, Gorky must have read and seen Chekhov's plays. Another Chekhovian play, Uncle Vanya, treats of the same theme-- Russia's rising middle class in the first decade of the 20th century renting holiday dachas in the summertime, and spending the summer in idleness. Even Gorky's style in this play is distinctly Chekhovian, a far cry from his earlier play, The Lower Depths, in 1902.

Gorky's and Chekhov's plays were used as acting models that gave rise to Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio in New York, utilizng the Stanislavsky method, a must in all Acting courses all over the world, particulary in the English-speaking world. What I found amazing about this lengthy play was the depth into which the NT actors portrayed their parts. The Stansilavsky style of acting can go either way: you're either bored to death with naturalistic/realistic acting, or you are caught agasp, listening intently and enjoying every minute of the play. And the latter was what the audience savoured throughout this production.

The transition from laughter to tears in seconds by the beautiful Varya played to the T by Jennifer Ehle; the apparently dandyish nature of the writer Shalimov acted superbly by Henry Goodman confessing his love to Varya who admires him as a writer but loses her respect for him because she now sees his human side; Varya's useless lawyer husband, Sergei (Roger Allam) who hosts the summerfolk in his home and is deserted, as in Ibsen's Doll's House by his wife at the end of the play because of his gossipy macho mentality; and so forth and so on--simply superb acting by the other actors in this huge cast: Elizabeth Renihan, Oliver Cotton, Jim Creighton, Derbhle Crotty, Patricia Hodge, Victoria Hamilton, Jasper Britton, Gabrielle Jourdan, Jack James, Simon Russell Beale, Liam McKenna, David Weston, Michael Bryant, aislin Sands, Alex Kelly, Robert Burt, Myra Sands, Martin Chamberlain, Richard Senders, Leigh McDonald, Ceri Ann Gregory, Rosie Day, Sophie Ann Day, Henri McCarthy, Sean Mullin, and other actors played by members of the Company.

The ending of the play is typically Chekhovian. Fall is in the air and everyone leaves the dacha to go back to the city. However, Gorky with Dear's interpretation, goes one step further: the last scene depicts the beggars picking up the leftovers of these vacationers, and the guard of the dacha, with his gun, pointing at them, threatening to shoot, decides to join them in the "leftover feast". A hint at the oncoming Russian revolution.

Again, this show received a warm, extended applause and standing ovations at the curtain call. Bravo, National Theatre! Theatre par excellence!