The Cocktail Party
Print Room at the Coronet
‘And if all that is meaningless, I want to be cured
Of a craving for something I cannot find
A reviewer should not be contrary without good reason, but on this occasion I think I have valid grounds to start with a few thoughts about the venue rather than the play.
This is the first time under current management that a play has been staged in the main theatre space of the old Coronet Theatre-Cinema. For now a temporary floor is in place at Dress Circle level so that the Stalls area can be opened up as a piano bar and the upper levels can be given over to the smaller-scale, mainly contemporary works for which the Print Room is best known. In a way it is rather like the division of labour at the current Royal Court. Although none of the original seats remain it is a hugely atmospheric space to be in. The elegant serpentine lines of the dress and upper circles, the elaborate, free-flowing faux rococo plasterwork and generous sightlines all mark this out as the work of an architect who knew how nineteenth-century theatres should be.
So it is no surprise to learn that it is the oldest of the surviving London houses created by Australian architect William Sprauge, one of Frank Matcham’s pupils, who was also responsible for Wyndhams, the Aldwych and the Noel Coward in the West End. Edward VII was a regular in the first tier boxes, and Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt performed below. If you shut your eyes to the general dilapidation, you can readily imagine an interior stripped of the standard-issue post box red paint and restored to its original filigree grandeur. The temporary piano bar, decorated by someone with a masterful eye for significant shabby-chic, is also a hugely welcoming space. The whole experience currently summons up the magical-realist perspective of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and a visit is very worthwhile for the vibes of the building alone. It has the potential to return to former glory just as the recently refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall.
And so to the play…you might think that the austere poet of The Wasteland and Four Quartets is an odd fit with The Coronet, but you would be wrong. Firstly, T.S.Eliot loved the world of the Music Hall and even gets one of his characters to sing a snatch of a song from that tradition in the first act of the current play. Also, more generally The Cocktail Party is fundamentally about taking old forms of drama, whether Greek tragedy or drawing-room comedy, and using them as vehicles for new ideas and debates. This placing of new wine in old bottles is exactly what The Print Room project is about, and it was an inspired idea by director Abbey Wright to put the two together.
Eliot came late to play-writing, with much if not most of his mature poetry already written or drafted before he began to venture in the mid-1930s into ritual religious morality pageants and the revival of the forms of Greek verse drama as a vessel for the debating of new ideas. But he had always had a very high notion of the public role of theatre. That much is clear in his literary criticism where he is very clear about the rootedness of poetry in sacred and community drama, which it ignores at its peril, and in the unique role that theatre can play in giving ideas and sentiments wings to fly out and grab the attention of a wider audience that the inwardness of lyric poetry can hope to reach. It was only going to be a matter of time before he attempted to follow the same trajectory.
However, these plays are rarely performed now – after real popularity in the immediate post-war period they were brushed aside by the new generation of playwrights for whom their sense of inherited tradition, self-conscious high-brow tone, and deliberate technical fustian represented impossible and repressive demands on the audience. There has not been a production of this play in the West End for 35 years, so this new take is both timely and welcome.
This neglect is clearly undeserved: there is a lot of dialogue in this play that sounds like Pinter in its parodic, absurdist satire of well-made drawing room comedies, and the philosophical issues under review are very accessible. Eliot always remained a self-aware modernist in literature as much as he was an Anglican and conservative in ideology; and in fact his drama is deeply unsettling rather than conventional when you penetrate beyond the formidable armoury of literary and historical referencing in which they are framed. All that matters in the end though is whether the plays still hold the attention on stage. That is always the great levelling principle of any revival.
On that score my verdict is mixed. The first act, and indeed first half rather overstays its welcome. This is not – as you might think – because the arguments about freewill, the nature of decisions and the quest for existential meaning are heavy going, or that the blank verse gets in the way. Rather it is that the dramaturgy is too insubstantial to bear the weight of these topics. The format of the cocktail party with guests leaving and returning to debate particular points, wears as thin as the reluctant host’s patience. The second and third acts, shorter and better focused, have a snappy, incisive zing to them that preserves a much better balance between the conversational surface and the larger issues at stake. The characters are more fully developed too.
Another issue, though ultimately less disconcerting, is that the couple who are the apparent centre of the drama are in fact rather less interesting than two of the subsidiary roles. Ostensibly, this is the story of the Chamberlaynes, who have separated ahead of a party organised by Lavinia (Helen Bradbury), which then has to be rescued by Edward (Richard Dempsey). Among the guests is an unidentified stranger (Hilton McRae) who turns out to be something of a cross between a spiritual guide and a psychiatrist. In a series of deep conversations he uncovers the fact that Edward and Lavinia are far more compatible then they think – while Edward may never overcome his sense of mediocrity or really be able to offer love, nor can Lavinia overcome the fact that she has never been able to attract genuine love. They stand as an eloquent exemplar of the painful yet feasible compromises forced upon most couples in daily life. For most of us that is the cure to the search for meaning.
There is another way, though, represented in the choices of Celia Coplestone (Chloe Pirrie), Edward’s younger mistress. In her second act dialogue with the mysterious stranger, which is both the emotional and intellectual heart of the play, she learns a different way. She chooses not to acquiesce in the comfortable choices that seem pre-ordained and appreciates that an alternative, much riskier form of self-realisation is available. This ends in tragedy but the explicit human and intellectual message of the play is that free will can still make a difference both to society and in realising and expressing the full potential of an individual life. It is Celia and the wise psychiatrist who both embody this vision, and are the real leading roles.
There are considerable burdens on the actors here. Each of the guests in the various cocktail ‘libations’ has their own moments of serious moral reflection, and collectively they also have to act as a Greek chorus on the one hand, and a group of sophisticated socialites on the other. Movement Director Joyce Henderson must take credit for ensuring that this was not a static production, and the cast as a whole demonstrated a telling command of the tonal and dynamic range needed to deliver the text.
The most taxing role is that of the mysterious stranger, played by McRae here as an engaging, confiding, soothing ‘Dr Finlay’ type, but with steel and authority where needed. Alec Guinness once said this was the most draining role he played and one can see why. Bradbury captured Lavinia’s hard, frustrated intellectual energy very powerfully, and Dempsey, in turn, Edward’s frustrated, petulant awareness of his own inadequacies. Pirrie needs to demonstrate the growth in her character’s self-assurance and self-knowledge more starkly, but doubtless that will come as the production beds down. Among the lesser roles Marcia Warren delivered a very well rounded comic turn as the apparently scatter-brained elderly chatterbox, Julia Shuttlethwaite.
The creative team was right, I think, to play it safe and minimal when it comes to setting. We do not need an elaborate set for what is essentially a series of conversations in an apartment and a consulting room. Two doors, a telephone on the back wall, a table with cocktail apparatus, and a scatter of chairs – that is all that is required. The flooring was marbled like the end-papers of an old leather-bound book.. a very deft touch by designer Richard Kent, nicely sketching in the self-conscious archaism of the play’s overall concept. The work of lighting designer David Plater and composer Gary Yershon also served to lend an expressionist Deco gloss that reminded me of the long-running production of An Inspector Calls. I do not know whether that play, also a product of the 1940s and involving a mysterious, moralising visitor, was another reference point for Eliot; but certainly that production seems to have impacted on the mood and tone of this one, with its stark, dynamic contrasts between spot-lighting and darkness, and electronically adjusted cocktail-bar piano music, both sophisticated and edgy.
There are many more layers both to this play and to this production that deserve further comment, but which lie beyond the reach of a relatively brief review. Suffice to say that this production makes a very well thought-through case for revisiting Eliot’s plays as a whole, and serves to remind us that there is a lot more important drama to his name than the one work we all know – namely Cats – which of course he never intended for the stage.