Look Back in Anger

BATS Theatre, Wellington

06/07/2006 - 22/07/2006

Production Details

Written by John Osborne
Directed by Miranda Harcourt

Miranda Harcourt directs Mia Blake, Lucy Wigmore, Aaron Alexander and Louis Sutherland in the John Osborne classic, Look Back in Anger. With lighting and set design by Martyn Roberts and sound by Stephen Gallagher this production looks set to be one of the most powerful performances seen in Wellington theatre this year.

Written in 1956 Look Back in Anger exploded the post-war colonial world and heralded a new age. It is widely regarded as one of the most confronting and moving plays of the 20th century. This will be the first professional production of the play to be performed for a Wellington audience.

BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
6-22 July 2006
book@bats.co.nz or phone (04) 802 4175

Silo Theatre, Lower Greys Avenue, Auckland CBD
27 July – 12 August 2006
www.ticketmaster.co.nz or phone (09) 970 9700

A three-act play with two intervals.

Director notes from Miranda Harcourt:

Helena: I have discovered what is wrong with Jimmy. He was born out of his time.
Alison: I know.
Helena: It is as though he still thinks he is in the middle of the French Revolution.

This exchange between Alison and Helena struck me the first time I read John Osborne’s searing examination of domestic relationships. But perhaps Jimmy was not born too late as Helena posits. Perhaps Jimmy was born too early.

Helena: …there’s no place for people like that, in sex or politics or anything… he doesn’t know where he is or where he’s going. He’ll never do anything and he’ll never amount to anything.

The relationships, the psychology and the sexual politics in Look Back in Anger seem so startlingly contemporary that it’s impossible to respond to these characters as a period piece. These people are us, living in flats in Newtown or Grafton in 2006. Alison’s passive aggression, Helena’s misguided determination, Cliff’s confusion and Jimmy’s nihilistic passion are as recognisable to us now as they were revolutionary to the original audience in 1956.

Jimmy: …I’ve an idea. Why don’t we have a little game? Let’s pretend we’re human beings, and that we’re actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say? Let’s pretend we’re human.

In this production we have played with anachronism, the interplay between being true to the period and being true to the voices of the characters.

The environment you will see onstage here – the food, the pay, the clothes, the jobs, the domestic chores… these remain true to the British Midlands in 1956. But we have brought some contemporary elements to our version of Osborne’s story. You will hear no assumed British accents. We have striven to find an authentic voice, using natural NZ accents to serve the intricate subtleties of this universal drama.

Words are loaded pistols.
Jean-Paul Sartre (b: 1905 d: 1980)

Thank you to our generous sponsors Cool Britannia and Williams and Adams. Thank you to our supporters, not least the cast and crew themselves.

It is great to be playing out this intimate battle at Wellington’s BATS Theatre and Auckland’s Silo Theatre, which are – like London’s Royal Court under George Devine in 1956- New Zealand’s hothouses for emerging talent and for established practitioners to experiment and push the boundaries of their work.

Jimmy Porter - Aaron Alexander
Alison Poeter - Mia Blake
Helena Charles - Lucy Wigmore
Cliff Lewis - Louise Sutherland
Voice of Alison's father - Ken Blackburn

Sets design: Martyn Roberts & Miranda Harcourt
Lighting design: Martyn Roberts
Design assistant: Laura Nicholls
Costumes: Zoe Fox
Sound design: Steve Gallagher
Stage management / lighting & sound operator: Anna Drakeford

Produdes by : Mary Parker

Poster Photography: Matt Grace
Poster Design: Nic Marshall
Stills photographey: Peter Rutherford

Theatre ,

Looking back there's too much anger

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 11th Jul 2006

Kenneth Tynan asked John Osborne in the early 60s to join the fledgling National Theatre and make history. Osborne replied that he had already made history. And indeed he had when he tossed his Molotov cocktail of a play, Look Back in Anger, into the genteel English theatre of 1956, which Arthur Miller had described at the time as being hermetically sealed off from life.

It is enterprising of Miranda Harcourt to celebrate here the fiftieth anniversary of this famous play’s first production at the Royal Court in London. In an ideal world it would be possible to celebrate this anniversary by also performing in repertory his 1991 play, Dejavu, in which Osborne revisits his characters in Look Back in Anger thirty years on.

In 1956 Look Back was, as Osborne admitted, a traditional three-act play no different in structure from a Rattigan play. What was startling was the strident central character, Jimmy Porter, who as Osborne pointed out was widely misunderstood at the time, largely because of the emphasis on "anger" in the title and the journalistic tag "angry young man".

However, the play was seen as speaking for a generation fed up with the inertia of a complacent post-war Britain. Today it seems to be a story, as one writer has said, of obsessional love and self-hatred. It could also be self-portrait of the playwright.

In this third – and first professional – production in Wellington since Nola Millar’s in 1959 for Unity Theatre Jimmy and Alison’s one-room flat seems enormous though most of the action is confined to a carpeted island in the middle of the stage where Jimmy and his friend Cliff sit claustrophobically close to each other on two tatty armchairs while Alison stands at an ironing board.

There is no attempt to recreate the fifties so you have to get used to, amongst other things, no smoking and New Zealand newspapers standing in for the posh Sunday papers that Jimmy reads despite complaining that the book reviews seem to be written in French. Jimmy’s off-stage jazz playing sounds like harsh electronic music and the important scene in which Alison’s father, a retired Indian army colonel, comes to take her back home away from Jimmy, has been  unfortunately reduced to a voice-over scene, presumably for economic reasons.

Lucy Wigmore’s Helena, Alison’s actress friend, has the no-nonsense, matriarchal authority off to a T that Osborne describes, and Louis Sutherland is all amiability and Sunday afternoon lethargy as Cliff, while Mia Blake probes the depths of Alison’s despair and almost makes the unconvincing ending convincing.

As Jimmy Aaron Alexander gets all the melodramatic fire and passion of Jimmy’s rhetorical, often self-pitying riffs but he misses completely Osborne’s statement that Jimmy is a comic character, a man of gentle susceptibilities, constantly goaded by a brutal and coercive world. Osborne goes on to say that the core of the character is best expressed, not only theatrically but truthfully, by a mild delivery – and Osborne emphasised the word mild.


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Compelling chemistry

Review by John Smythe 07th Jul 2006

The great thing about seeing John Osborne’s 1956 break-through ‘kitchen sink drama’ Look Back in Anger fifty years on is that we now know what happened next.

We get to look back with the wisdom of hindsight, aware that ‘anti-hero’ Jimmy Porter’s infamous anger expresses a frustrated nostalgia for a future he couldn’t imagine, let alone lift a finger to create. All he can do is rail at what he feels is not right and destroy the people he loves in the process.

From a working class background, university-educated and aggressively avid for further knowledge – albeit from the ‘pompous’ Sunday papers – he has ‘married up’. Alison is a ‘privileged’ daughter of the rump of the Raj (her parents were based in India). Three years wed, he and Alison share a Midlands flat with Jimmy’s Welsh mate Cliff, who loves them both. The boys run a sweet stall at the market and of a Sunday, they read the papers while Alison irons their shirts.

In a risqué touch for 1956, Alison is wearing one of Jimmy’s shirts but it’s not so much that as the visible presence of the ironing board itself that symbolises modern theatre’s great leap from fashionable drawing rooms to ‘real’ life, as she is lived: predetermined and humdrum. This is the status quo that’s getting Jimmy’s goat.

Jimmy’s anger took root at the age of ten when he watched his father, a veteran of the Spanish civil war, die a slow and ignominious death. As a boy he felt helpless. More than that, in his rapidly disappearing innocence and ignorance-based arrogance, he felt as if he was the only one that gave a damn.

But Jimmy has been well looked after by women all his life – his mother, the older woman (Madeline) who initiated him into manhood, a series of girlfriends and now Alison – not to mention the mates he has also chewed up and spat out along the way. It could be said, then, that Jimmy is the privileged one. On the other hand his manic dependency, his deep lack of self-esteem – on the flipside of the superiority complex he exhibits – and his inability to achieve anything like domestic independence, let alone personal power, render him destitute.

It’s tempting to think Jimmy’s righteous and clearly self-defeating anger is old hat, that these days anyone wanting to bring about social change has the sense to model it in their own behaviour first. Jimmy, for example, demands that people "show some enthusiasm!" but the only thing he gets passionate about is proving how wrong everyone else is and how very right – far right? – he is.

Surely, though, the compulsion husbands feel to put down their wives in front of friends has long since been exposed for the desperate weakness it is. Mind you, it did play a major role in the social revolution that followed the fifties. Schoolteacher Reg in Roger Hall’s Middle Age Spread (1977) is a perfect example, and those of us who lived through that time can easily think of self-styled agents of ‘enlightenment’ who were deeply misogynistic. But surely that stuff has not survived into the new millennium. Has it?

It took me a while to recall where I’d heard that voice, that tone, all too recently. In the last three election campaigns it has been loud and clear in the harangues of Libertarian candidates as they vent their frustration at our collective inability to comprehend that we should claim ‘freedom’ on exactly the terms they prescribe! That’s where a Kiwi Jimmy would have ended up, after a disillusioning spell with the ACT party, I imagine.

These, then, are the sorts of thoughts this Miranda Harcourt-directed Look Back in Anger provokes. The company’s decision to play it in their own voices and use last weekend’s local Sunday papers, while leaving the dialogue, furnishings and fashions unchanged, cannot help but encourage us – in response to Jimmy’s provocations – to evaluate not only the times of his life but the whole half-century since.

The great strength of this production is the realness of its feel; of the feelings felt by each character every step of the way. What makes the play a classic is that everyone, including Alison’s colonial father (present only via one phone call in this trimmed-down version), is empathetically drawn, and each performance at BATS honours that.

Having systematically alienated himself entirely from any hope of audience sympathy, Aaron Alexander’s Jimmy subtly betrays his own self loathing then hits us in the solar plexus with the strength of his dependant love. We don’t have to like him but we cannot help but understand his desperation.

In the mind and body of Mia Blake, Alison is beautifully eloquent. Her private thoughts and her non-spoken responses to Jimmy and Cliff speak volumes. Most impressive is the understanding she gives us of why she’s attracted to Jimmy, and why she cannot … (no, I won’t reveal too much of the plot since a whole new generation may well be seeing this for the first time). Suffice to say that beyond the sympathy she wins initially, she too reveals flaws and provokes frustration as well as empathy.

As Cliff (Horatio to Jimmy’s malign Hamlet?), Louis Sutherland nails the co-dependant role of joker-cum-peacemaker splendidly. He and Blake also capture perfectly the special kind of loving friendship Cliff and Alison share, as it strengthens even more in the face of adversity.

Lucy Wigmore works wonders as she navigates Helena’s twisting route from censorious protector (of her close friend, Alison) to opportunistic lover, albeit with a heart and a conscience. And Ken Blackburn does much more than phone in his performance as Colonel Redfern, subverting any wish we might have to write him off as a fading old fart.

It’s not so much the characters as their relationships, the chemistry between them, that engages our hearts and minds. Miranda Harcourt’s attention to that dimension, played out in Martyn Robert’s subtly lit thrust-space setting, ensures a compelling 140 minutes (with two brief intervals).

However, somehow the flat feels rather too spacious and I couldn’t get the hang of its geography. And from where I sat, in a main bank of seats, I was sorry to be behind Alison as she delivered her final speech, knowing so much more would be there to see beyond the words being spoken. On the other hand, that staging places her with us – or us with her – and leaves the abiding questions firmly in our laps.

If you’ve seen the play before (incredibly this is its first professional outing in Wellington), or the film or TV versions, I recommend you refresh your sense of it with this production. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this opportunity.


martyn roberts August 24th, 2006

Thanks John, It also struck me in the course of being part of this production that the overall response I have heard is centred on 'how offensive' jimmy is and 'out of date' the response is from alice. Not so I say. Jimmy is in fact very indicative of today's disenfranchised male, and it is telling that 50 years later the male anger expressed is still unanswered. I venture that while progress in the area of gender have shifted for women in the last 50 years (in the liberal west) not much has changed for men. Time gentlemen time...

John Smythe July 10th, 2006

Further thoughts on Look Back in Anger The word that keeps nagging at me, as I try to reconcile the character of Jimmy with what came after in the 1960s and 70s, is ‘charisma’. Thinking about the ‘angry young men’ I have known – not to mention the ‘angry young women’ – it’s their charisma that let them get away with what might otherwise have been called abusive behaviour. charisma n. the power to inspire devotion and enthusiasm; great charm. Is the term relevant at all to Jimmy? If it is, it’s because he has the ability to articulate what others can’t put into words (again, Reg in Middle Age Spread springs to mind). That can spark admiration, at least for a while … Back then, before the rise and rise of spin doctors, it was the spokespeople who were the leaders. Does Osborne’s script allow for charisma with Jimmy? He certainly has the gift of the gab – and the ‘impromptu’ vaudeville routine he and Cliff do adds a whole fun (albeit acerbic fun) side to his character. If he had found a responsive audience, could he have proved a capable leader or does he just need to vent his anger on whoever is unfortunate enough to get in his way? Is it a play of its time in that audiences in the latter 1950s would have warmed more readily to Jimmy for having the words, and the balls to express them, whereas nowadays the way he goes about saying it obliterates the content? Of course it has always been a crime to be passionate in ‘civilised’ company and that’s how the characters respond. But audiences, at arms length, innately aware the class system sucks and not yet reconditioned to recognise misogyny the instant they see it … Maybe they saw more positives in him then than we do now. Someone said to me the other night that Aaron Alexander’s Jimmy shouts too much, he’s just “white noise” and there’s no way his tirades can be admired at any level. Is this true for everyone or was it just that person’s buttons that got readily pushed? While I can see that if Jimmy modulated his early outbursts more his story would have a different dramatic structure, I’m not sure that’s the way it’s written – in this edited version anyway. For me – and this is what I love so much about this production – the point of focus is Alison and Cliff: the silent majority; their responses. In her chat with Kim Hill, director Miranda Harcourt referred to Alison’s “passive aggression” – because she fails to respond then walks out. That’s true. But somewhere along the line she’s been sucked in, by his … charisma? Helena, on the other hand, does rise to the bait and earn Jimmy’s respect for standing up to him and challenging him ... Each sees the other as something to conquer … You can’t help but admire a play – and production – that keeps you thinking like this …

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