It is one thing to be a visually literate playwright; quite another to create a full-length drama which appropriates the techniques of the cinema as whole-heartedly as Terry Johnson has done in his latest play.
Obeying the old principle of showing rather than telling, Johnson lays before us the life of the late and undoubtedly great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, probably best known for his work with such movie directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This he does with a spritely, lurching mix of nostalgia for the Great Days and the tawdry family squabbling which threatens the dignity of his own last years. Not quite John Osborne, but with a certain kitchen-sinking feeling.
Premiered at Hampstead Theatre two years ago, this gloriously idiosyncratic piece with the air of a stage biopic is at the start of a much anticipated national tour. One reason for its great expectations is the central performance of Robert Lindsay, onstage for virtually the whole two hours, and called upon to cut between moments of lucid memory and the disjointed images of alzheimic recall.
The prism of the title holds the key. On the one hand it is a plain triangular slab of glass with the seemingly miraculous gift of being able to break down the light into its constituent parts. Cardiff cradles it in his palm and rhapsodises over its properties. On the other hand it is a clear and present metaphor for the unreliable mind’s warping of past events, and their reintegration into a fearsome vision of the present.
This process affects everything in Cardiff’s line of sight, both inner and outer. As such, it is responsible for the dark domestic humour of his situation; the rivalrous contempt of the old father for the son who has no choice but to struggle in his wake; the feisty presence of the second, inevitably younger, wife.
A comedy of alienation it may be, yet if you are familiar with Johnson’s earlier work, the landscape will not seem entirely foreign.
For here are the rich, wild disjunctions of the sort already on display in such plays as Insignificance (1982) and Hysteria (1993), in which he plays fast and loose with an encounter between Salvador Dali and Sigmund Freud in 1938.
Prism is likewise shot through with the imagined presences of John (Huston), Audrey (Hepburn), Humphrey (Bogart) and more, all subjected to the random recollections of Cardiff’s and our own later, faded time. In one scene we find the actors co-opted into the cast of the 1951 film of C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, bickering and sweating in the location’s jungle heat.
By the end, memory and faded vision become virtual characters, locked in a dance of mutual dependency and raging, as far as age will allow, against the dying of the all-important light. Johnson is not just the author but also the director. In the context of such a play, this seems less like a show of versatility than a necessary continuity
between the idea and its execution.
Lindsay gets support and more from Oliver Hembrough as his beleaguered son Mason, Tara Fitzgerald as Jack’s better-than-deserved wife Nicola and Victoria Blunt as Lucy, the game factotum.
Cardiff himself is a fine swine of a part, demanding everything an actor can throw at him, and then some. There is a certain irony in this, given that, compared with those globally famous associates of his, his own name was less than household. Robert Lindsay responds by giving him everything he’s got, and then some. His performance is at
times vaudevillian and self-spoofing, then poignant with diminution, then Lear-like, or lite, in its tawdry grandeur. There are echoes of great predecessors; the easy but louche charm of Robert Stephens, even the sad swagger of Olivier’s Archie Rice. It’s a hell of a performance.
Review by Alan Franks
Following a sold-out run at Hampstead Theatre, Terry Johnson’s PRISM returns to the stage as part of a national
tour with Robert Lindsay reprising his role as the double Oscar-winning cinematic master Jack Cardiff.
Jack Cardiff has retired to the sleepy village of Denham, Buckinghamshire. His days of hard work – and play – on
some of the most famous film sets in the world are now long behind him, as are his secret liaisons with some of
the most famous women in the world… Surrounded by memorabilia from a lifetime of ‘painting with light’, the
writing of an autobiography should be an easy matter – were it not that Jack would now rather live in the past
than remember it…
Monday 14 – Saturday 19 October.
Book Tickets for Richmond Theatre