|The Financial TimesTHE ARTS: Firebrand
lacks fervour THEATRE:
Financial Times; Oct 9, 2001
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
John Osborne will always have his place in the history books. But has his dramatic
excellence ever matched his historical importance? His Look Back in Anger (1956) is seen
as the turning-point in modern British drama, and often its importance has been inflated
beyond that of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and that of the Berliner Ensemble's first
British season of Brecht plays in 1956. (The inflation was started by Kenneth Tynan.) I'm
among those who admire Look Back in Anger - but for its old-fashioned merits of
construction, not for any enduring radical virtues. And does Osborne have much place in
repertory today? Revivals of plays of his crop up from time to time - The Entertainer, A
Patriot for Me, Inadmissible Evidence - but they never amount even to talk of an
"Osborne revival", whereas one hears serious talk of a "Rattigan
revival", and the "Coward revival" is virtually a non-stop industry.
Osborne today amounts to more than some other "angry young men" who followed in
his wake (such as Arnold Wesker) but to a great deal less than others (such as Harold
Pinter). I'm glad that the National Theatre has revived Osborne's Luther -a play I only
otherwise knew from a 1983 BBC Radio production - and I hope that our leading theatre
companies keep reviving various Osborne plays. I like learning my theatre history in the
live theatre. But that's how Osborne feels: history.
Certainly he was no Johnny-one-note playwright. The modern-dress bile that stamped Look
Back in Anger belongs to one genre; the satirical vision of a period Britain in decline in
The Entertainer (1957) to another; and Luther (1961) to a genre quite different again.
Within the long tradition of dramas that treat major historical figures, Luther belongs to
that dramatises historical crises of faith and liberty. It looks back to Schiller (Don
Carlos, The Maid of Orleans, William Tell) and forward to Peter Shaffer (The Royal Hunt of
the Sun). At some level it is a self-examination on Osborne's part: the Martin Luther of
drama - the cleanser of its Augean stables, the creator of a new constituency, the
fashioner of a new reformation style - was dramatising Luther himself, the decadence
against which he fought, the plain-speaking middle-class background from which he came,
the brilliance and the hubris that characterised his struggle.
I find it admirable but slow, diffuse, unsubtle. Its greatest dramatic strokes occur too
infrequently, and its individual lines don't coruscate. It's possible that it would work
better if played in an intimate theatre, stripped down to raw essence. In the Olivier
Theatre, Peter Gill's revival makes it seem cumbersome, overblown. And Rufus
Sewell - an actor so gifted in terms of extraordinary looks and personal intensity -
tackles a title role for which he doesn't yet have the complex technique or artistry. He
shows us Luther's spiritual torture, his feverish temperament, his physical cramps, but he
also follows Osborne in letting those things become repetitious. (Luther's
bowels become a particular bore.) The most magisterial performances are given by Malcolm
Sinclair as Cardinal Cejetan and Andrew Woodall as the Knight. Richard Griffiths is
enjoyable as Johann Tetzel, and Timothy West amiable as the vicar-general von Staupitz.
Geoffrey Hutchings turns Luther's father Hans into a bullying deadweight. The whole
production makes Osborne seem serious and ponderous.