Julian Eaves reviews The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess now playing at the Finborough Theatre, London.
3rd October 2019
As a fascinating technical exercise in seeing a wonderful, highly experienced actress and a rather promising debutante in the industry both working their socks off to try and make human sense of a problematic script, this has a certain interest, and possibly some allure. As a play worth its while in its own right, there are many, many more troublesome question marks hanging over it.
Writer Eleanor Burgess produced it through association with several top-drawer US academic institutions, and it has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated SCR entertainment: packed full of the procedures and jargon of academe, it features fairly standard representations of familiar types, ‘Janine Bosko. Female, white, early 60s. A college professor’ and ‘Zoe Reed. Female, black, 20. A college student’, who go through some fairly standard genuflections relating to tutor-student relations and US black-white relations, in which everything that you expect to happen does, and everything you would expect to be said is. Burgess has a very long list of theatres with whom she has ‘worked’, but her programme biography – curiously – doesn’t actually say what she did in them. On the basis of this effort, I couldn’t be sure that she has written many plays. In fact, the longer I stayed with this script, the more I was put in mind of Garry Essendine’s response to the young writer in ‘Present Laughter’: ‘To begin with, your play is not a play at all. It’s a meaningless jumble of adolescent, pseudo-intellectual poppycock. It bears no relation to the theatre, or to life or to anything.’ That may seem unnecessarily cruel, but every time this play begins to draw near to the real world, it wanders off again into a strange universe populated by Burgess’ ideas about how people feel, think and behave and very little else.
Ostensibly, we get an end-of-the-afternoon tutorial between vastly experienced and savvy Eng. Lit. professor Bosko (Janie Dee, on magnificent form, with a career’s worth of superb gestures and mannerisms at her disposal) and a tense, monosyllabic, awkward student Reed (Moronke Akinola, making her professional debut, hemmed in for much of the play by the direction, but finally breaking out to show some real animation in the latter stages of the first act). The staging by Rachel Stone – and doubtless approved by director Matthew Iliffe – is a neatly effective representation of a smart academic office, complete with solid oaken desk, and a smattering of inspirational pictures on the wall. Such a staging rather leads the audience to expect that the play itself will take a fairly realistic turn, in which events arise out of definite causes and produce logical and coherent effects. And that, alas, is where the play and design begin to part company almost at the very first beat. Bosko is first established as a pedant, ‘You’re missing a comma here’, and then trots through a catalogue of conventional academic poses (vocabulary games, condescension towards her student and a tedious rehearsal of the old chestnut pun of ‘peccavi’ – ‘I have Sindh’). She is a humourless bore. Oh, Dee lavishes all her skills upon making her appear anything but. Yet the tutor’s prattle just won’t let up: or is Burgess trying to make a ‘point’ about the poor quality of teaching in so-called ‘elite’ universities? Is that her target?
Well, it might also be: she does have a fair few. And the function of these two actresses is to be mouthpieces for them, nothing more. On the one hand, she has a go at white liberal middle-class assumptions, and then lampoons the African-American viewpoint in a caricature seemingly based on Angela Davis and a super-sulky version of contemporary historical revisionists. Yet, she is kindly and does not let either get the upper-hand for long. But while that may be polite and charming on a personal level, it creates an odd sort of yo-yo-ing of dramatic direction. The discourse is on the dry side of Shavian, without having the blessing of Shaw’s grasp of characterisation and comedy. But validation, and not drama, is key here. However, if that’s what you want from two hours in the theatre, so be it. You might love this show.
On the other hand, you might see in it, as I do, yet another rather annoying squabble between two women… about a man. The gentleman in question does not make a personal appearance, but his portrait is on the wall: George Washington. There is much talk about his slave-ownership, and how that is every bit as much a part of the ‘founding myth’ of the nation as the Bill of Rights or Constitution or Declaration of Independence – all the work of despised white men who oppressed Africans. These are huge themes and worthy of exploration in the theatre, but do they have to be handled in this way? Aren’t there better writers out there who can create believable characters (if they are to be presented in believable settings) and credible situations? Why does a student have to spend two hours rowing about this with a tutor in her office? Isn’t there anything else going on in their lives? Well, yes: they sometimes refer to events happening elsewhere, peripheral to the chat, but nothing that gives clear, unambiguous shape or purpose to the nature of (a) their meetings and (b) their content and form.
If Burgess wants to get on in the theatre, then perhaps she could do worse than to heed Essendine’s advice: ‘Learn from the ground up how plays are constructed and what is actable and what isn’t.’ Even better: she could get up on that stage herself and see if she can make any sense of what she’s written. I can’t.FINBOROUGH THEATRE WEBSITE