18/04/2013 - 27/04/2013
Noel Coward’s works are generally regarded as light-hearted and even frivolous. His play, Still Life, which is probably better known as Brief Encounter, is an example of his more contemplative side.
Brief Encounter tells the story of the year-long love affair between two people in their 30s, Laura and Alec, each one apparently stable and happily married (to others) and neither prepared for the onslaught of love that comes upon them so unexpectedly.
The sadness of their serious and secret relationship is contrasted throughout the play with the much more cheerful and playful relationship of Myrtle and Albert, two of the staff working in the railway station where the whole action of the play takes place.
GLOBE THEATRE, Dunedin
Dates: 18-27 April 2013 (not Monday 20 April)
Times: 7.30pm, except Sunday 19 April (2.00pm)
Ticket prices: Globe members $10.00 any performance
General public, $20.00 | Concession,* $15.00
Opening night special, $10.00 all public
*Concession: All unwaged people and groups of 5 or more
Laura: Denise Casey
Alec: Chris Jacobs
Myrtle: Mary Greet
Albert: Dale Neil
Beryl: Laura Wells
Stanley: Oscar Macdonald
Mildred: Kimberley Buchan
Bill: Brook Bray
Johnnie: Alan Grey
Young Man: Chris Summers
Dolly: Janice Snowden
Customer: Yvonne Jessop
emotional understanding born of his own experience of forbidden love
Review by Terry MacTavish 21st Apr 2013
“I feel so utterly degraded,” says Laura.
“We know we really love each other – that’s all that matters,” Alec replies.
Clearly it is not all that matters, for Laura and Alec; and not for ‘discreetly gay’ Noel Coward, either. Homosexuals, even more than adulterers, were persecuted in the 30s.
No wonder that when he turned his golden pen from the light-hearted froth that charmed the British nation, especially during the dark war years, Coward was able to write so poignantly of the agony of loving the wrong person. The Globe has picked the perfect time, as New Zealand celebrates with rainbows the historic passing of the Marriage Equality Act, to remember all who have felt degraded for following their hearts.
From the most mundane of brief encounters – Laura gets grit in her eye from the express train and Alec the doctor politely offers to help – a life-changing passion develops. The affair is played out in the busy refreshment room of the railway station, and an off-stage flat, belonging to Alec’s friend, that becomes their love-nest. Until they are caught, that is, and can no longer ignore the way the world will judge their relationship.
Curiously, virtually all eras and societies attempt to impose rules around sexual desire, and this was a time in England when doing one’s duty was sternly reinforced as part of the war effort. Laura is a respectable married middle class lady, Alec an idealistic doctor. Such people simply did not walk out of their marriages, however dull. Brief Encounter, with its choice between self fulfilment and self denial, is still achingly relevant. It is easy to imagine the protagonists separated by different race, faith, even generation; or indeed of the same gender.
The Globe’s production eschews the technical experimentation of Kneehigh Theatre’s recent revival, and gives us a quiet, intense portrait of two people who are trapped by the social code of their time. Around them swirl the railway workers and customers, all absorbed in their own lives, barely noticing the lovers, though Albert once flippantly refers to them as ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Coward, like Shakespeare in As You Like It, contrasts his star-crossed romantics with two other couples who have different takes on love and lust: the alarmingly respectable tea-room manageress Myrtle, who is not above a bit of slap and tickle with Albert the station master, and the more innocent courtship between demure waitress Beryl and young Stanley, who takes refreshments (well, stale buns) onto the trains.
Dunedin acknowledged its good fortune in possessing director Louise Petherbridge by naming her a Living Treasure at last year’s Theatre Awards. Petherbridge, who actually worked with Coward in London in the early 60s, and still prizes the glowing testimonial he wrote her, is meticulously passing on his legacy. She has designed the set, a typical railways tea room, its severe walls brightened with art deco posters for exotic destinations, and has ensured the period atmosphere is spot-on.
Her cast responds with a truthful and convincing recreation of the era. Mary Greet and Dale Neil cause great mirth as lascivious Myrtle and Albert, while Laura Wells’ Beryl shows a sweet dignity in her handling of saucy Stanley (Oscar Macdonald).
Altogether the cast is large enough to convey the bustle and transient nature of a railway station, and for a tight, absorbing hour of action, the pace rarely flags.
Even in the last scene there are new arrivals, like Mildred the paper-girl (a cute Kimberley Buchan) rushing in breathlessly with bad news for Beryl, and a couple of rowdy soldiers who enter in futile search of an after-hours drink, reminding us again of the rules controlling every detail of life. Charming little snatches of Coward’s popular songs play between the scenes.
But the play belongs to Laura and Alec, and it is hard to take your eyes from them as they gaze longingly at each other over the heavy railway crockery, occasionally permitting themselves a chaste but erotically charged hand-clasp. Directed with delicacy and sincerity, the relationship is never in danger of descending into bathos.
Chris Jacobs is honest and manly as Alec, a man who although in real earnest does not lose his wit or sense of humour. Coward will always show us the funny side: the couple actually fall in love during a banal (though intriguingly topical) conversation on Alec’s pet interest, disease caused by coal mining. (“It’s called Anthracosis”.)
As Laura, Denise Casey moves smoothly from a perfectly-controlled matron to a heart-broken woman consumed with guilt and shame. Her performance is beautifully judged and largely interior, inviting empathy rather than ridicule.
Throughout the play, we are aware of the cheerful noise of the trains from the platform. During the lightly inconsequential opening it seems to suggest a jolly weekend away, but it sounds increasingly sinister as Laura’s desperation builds. Anna Karenina’s fate is never far from the mind, and though I envy those in the audience young enough to be ignorant of the ending, I am conscious of true suspense.
This is artfully heightened by the eruption into the unbearably poignant final scene of Laura’s silly friend (an absolutely brilliant cameo by Jan Snowden) who prattles cheerfully and senselessly, gossiping about naughty liaisons in the Tate Gallery, blissfully unaware of the hearts breaking around her.
Coward described himself at this stage in his career as ‘irritatingly successful’, and he certainly had an uncanny sense of what his public wanted, and the skill to hold a mirror up to society and reflect it with dazzling accuracy. It will be interesting next week to compare New Zealand’s own mirror, Roger Hall, whose new play opens at the Fortune.
In this elegant production at the Globe, however, we have a marvellous opportunity to admire the Master’s handling of an eternal theme, which reveals a depth of emotional understanding born of his own experience of forbidden love. It resonates enough with us today for the film of Brief Encounter to have been picked as ‘the best movie romance of all time’.
How thrilled Noel Coward would surely have been, to have known that one day there would be a country where love would not only dare to speak its name, but burst into song, with a stunning Maori waiata, in the very house of parliament!
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer