The Entertainer brings to an end the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s inaugural season at the Garrick. The seven plays have been varied and challenging and there were no easy hits amongst them. The casting was generally excellent with a few unusual calls (the 77-year- old Derek Jacobi as Mercutio for example). I missed The Winter’s Tale (tickets like gold dust) but saw and enjoyed the rest. To finish with The Entertainer was a fitting climax not just to the season but to Branagh’s starring role in most of the productions. Laurence Olivier, genius that he was, had something of the “Ham” about him at times and as Archie Rice he clearly relished in the ambiguity of a great actor playing the part of a poor Music Hall player in decline. Branagh, who was excellent as the over-the-hill Actor/Manager Arthur Gosport in Harlequinade, also seemed to enjoy playing the failing Archie Rice. In this season he has twice nailed the difficult task of a fine actor playing a very poor performer – perhaps he’s seen a few in his thirty plus years in the theatre!
The Entertainer is a tough, cynical and angry play. Osborne had become an overnight sensation in 1956 with “Look Back in Anger” in which Porter articulates his despair, helplessness and frustration. Osborne had been irate for a while – like Jimmy Porter he “learnt at an early age what it is to be angry”. A year later he gave the anger more focus in The Entertainer where he used the dying world of the Music Hall as a metaphor for what he saw as a dying England. The play is set in 1956 when not only did Anthony Eden’s government commit the supreme folly of Suez but Britain’s whole governance structure was riddled with lies and evasions. (Osborne was to explode further in 1961 with his “Damn you England” letter and in 1962 Dean Acheson more politely worried that “Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”). It may be sixty years on from Suez and from that time when Archie Rice says “Don’t clap too loud, we’re all in a very old building” – and that building may have been spruced up a bit. But does that make The Entertainer only of retrospective historical interest? Not at all!! Kenneth Branagh says in the programme of this new production that the play “…illuminates our current political and social climate with shocking immediacy”. When he planned to conclude his season at the Garrick with The Entertainer Branagh couldn’t have known that 2016 would see Britain plunged into as fragile a state as Suez had done sixty years earlier.
As in 1956, there are today voices of protest, but they are often deluded and regularly patronised and dismissed. In the play, Archie’s daughter Jean explains her youthful political activism by saying “…somehow – with a whole lot of other people, strange as it may seem – I managed to get steamed up about the way things were going”. Echoes here of the passionate but naïve Corbynistas who in 2016, like Jean in 1956, have just discovered politics and think that they can change the world. In the play, this delusion is countered by her father’s cynicism and her grandfather’s nostalgic conservatism. Kenneth Tynan called Archie Rice as being “…one of the great acting parts of our age” but after Olivier few top actors have actually tackled it. The best of a small number of productions was perhaps that in 1974 when, as today and as in 1956, Britain was at a low ebb. Max Wall’s Archie was obviously quite different from Olivier’s. Here was not a clown played by a great actor but a clown acted by a great clown. With Branagh we are back to the Olivier model and he gives a faultless and at times deeply moving performance. He does not seek our sympathy for his plight for one moment – indeed he has open contempt for himself. Olivier was 50 when he played Archie Rice; Branagh is a few years older. The mid-life crisis years for actors of their stature may be difficult (Arthur Gosport is about the same age and is still playing Romeo!) and if you’ve been a great Shakespearean and also created Wallander (in its British version) with equal skill then the challenge of Archie Rice beckons.
The Entertainer puzzled its American audiences when Olivier took it there in 1958 (although it was a sell-out). It is a particularly British play, not least the heavy sarcasm and self-mockery (bordering on self-loathing) – and the despair. Branagh’s production portrays this well to the extent that the tragedy of Archie’s son’s death at Suez seems almost commonplace. Only when Archie bitterly rants at all of the members of his family – especially his long-suffering wife Phoebe superbly played by Greta Scacchi – do we see how deep-seated his depression is. And when he sings “The Blues” – the high spot for many of Olivier’s performance – Branagh reaches heights that surely match his great predecessor. For me the swift interplay of the Music Hall and the home works well – Archie never quite takes off the greasepaint and performs whether he’s actually on a stage or not. This is a great play by the playwright who more than any other kicked the theatre into the uncomfortable realities of late twentieth century Britain. And there is a performance by Kenneth Branagh not to be missed.
Review by Paddy Briggs
Set against the backdrop of post-war Britain, John Osborneʼs modern classic conjures the seedy glamour of the old music halls for an examination of public masks and private torment.
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, in partnership with Picturehouse Entertainment, are broadcasting three productions of the season live to cinemas worldwide. The Winter’s Tale was streamed live on 26 November 2015 and was followed by Romeo and Juliet on 7 July (encore screenings will take place throughout summer 2016). The final Branagh Theatre Live cinema broadcast will be The Entertainer on 27 October 2016.
20th August 2016 – 12th November 2016
Press performance: 30 August 7pm
Captioned Performance: 6 September 7.30pm
Audio Described Performance: 13 September 7.30pm
Performances Monday – Saturday with 2.30pm matinee performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays excluding 20 August.