Tim Hochstrasser reviews Howard Colyer’s new play As a man Grows Stronger performed by David Bromley at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.
As a Man Grows Stronger
Jack Studio Theatre
21 February 2019
Howard Colyer’s new play, written for one voice, and lasting just over an hour, is impressively researched and exquisitely performed by David Bromley in a production which skilfully showcases him in appropriate period detail. However, it also raises, without ever fully resolving, tricky questions about how represent the life and work of an artist or writer, while doing equal justice to both aspects.
This play seeks to introduce us to the life and career of Italo Svevo, who spent much of his life in Trieste. His life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was far from easy. Born Jewish and educated in Germany he also was strongly affected by Italian cultural and political loyalties while never finding full acceptance under the Austrian or Italian governments under which he lived. He was not clear where he belonged, nor was he ever fully accepted, least of all by the Fascist regime of Mussolini that darkened his final years. In many ways Svevo’s liminal dilemmas are very relevant to our own times, and it is in teasing out those parallels without pressing them too hard that this play is perhaps at its most successful.
There is a lot of gentle humour here often at the expense of the character himself: his diffidence and fearfulness, his inability to quit smoking (that becomes a trope of the play), and his determination not to let his identity be submerged under the weight of events whether domestic or political. There is a rich sense of the absurd too, which one imagines emerged as a satirical edge in his writing too. It is bizarre indeed that he spent ten years of his life living in Charlton supervising the production of a special heavy-duty paint for English battleships, the formula of which was jealously guarded by his wife’s family firm, and his mother-in-law above all.
There are similarities with Kafka’s life and particularly in which he seems to turn his relative powerlessness in the face of events into a literary persona. This all provides very rich material for David Bromley to develop a memorable pattern of nervous and anxious contradictions traced through the events of Svevo’s life. There is also an intriguing sense of how the boundary between truth and fiction is deliberately and willingly blurred in his mind as a way of escaping daily humiliations and setbacks. After all even his name is a literary invention devised to escape pigeonholing in the roiling politics of the day. We don’t know entirely how much to trust what we are being told.
Matters are made more complicated by the inclusion of a long middle section describing Svevo’s friendship with Joyce, who acted as his tutor in English in Trieste and then became a loyal literary supporter and admirer. Much of this is very amusing and Bromley does a fine job in impersonating Joyce, not just in his accent but in all his hopeless impracticality and imperious verbal ambition.
Colyer has done a very skilful job in digesting huge amount of miscellaneous information we have about Svevo’s life and his encounter with James Joyce, and finding a plausible framework on which to hang it. But the very focus on the conundrums of the life means that we do not hear nearly enough about Svevo’s actual writing. We hear a little about the last play on which he is engaged and its deft satire of Mussolini’s bogus embrace of a fake concept of youth, but nothing at all of the Confessions of Zeno, the work which aroused Joyce’s admiration, or of his other major works. In fact we learn more about Joyce as a writer than we do about Svevo. It is as an author that the latter has a primary claim on our attention – he was called ‘the Italian Proust’ – and therefore it is a shame that this aspect is undercooked. Perhaps a choice has to be made: one can make a choice to dramatise the life (which is indeed of real interest) or the work, but not the two together. But in this case because we are dealing with an author, not a man of action, it is the work that ultimately should matter rather more.
That said, the supporting creative work around the production is first-rate. The small space available in Brockley has acted as a stimulus to invention on several levels. Designer Karl Swinyard evokes the period clutter of a writer’s study with detailed care, while leaving plenty of zones of movement in which director Kate Bannister creates an ambient fluidity with the performer, avoiding static tableaus and ensuring there is always something to look at. The sound and lighting schemes are expertly done: we really do feel the passage of the day as Svevo awaits either the paperboy or the heavier footfall of authority. And the range of street noises and sounds gathered in from memory (including a memorable shipwreck) are precisely rendered and evoked with arresting verisimilitude – which is often tricky to bring off in a small space.
So while the play does not wholly clinch its case for its subject’s salience, the collective depiction of an uneasy life lived wryly at the margins is delicately and memorably done, reflecting credit on all involved.