Although written in 1956, John Osborne’s play “Look back in anger”, which opened at the Gate Theatre last Wednesday, still manages to sound current today and hurls us into the midst of a socio-psychological perfect storm.
Young Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner), of working class origins but well educated, is married to Alison (Clare Dunne), a middle class girl; they live in a one room attic flat in the English Midlands. Cliff (Lloyd Cooney) is their indolent, semi-cohabiting friend.
Jimmy appears like a pretentious, nasty, self absorbed intellectual, as interested in political and cultural matters as in continuously measuring and asserting the distance between himself and a seemingly lower order of human beings, which happens to include his best friend Cliff and his own wife.
After a start where the character of Jimmy doesn’t elicit many sympathies, little by little the play challenges the audience with a more complex moral reading. Jimmy is obnoxious and dislikable as only uncompromising idealists are. He is cynical and misogynist, but his world of beliefs is the result of an uncaring mother and of a childhood’s traumatic event. He’s the child who doesn’t want to grow up, who doesn’t want to give way to adulthood and its loss of passion, but who still has to face the real world every day. He’s a fragile monster.
The moral compass, symbolised by the character of Helena (Vanessa Emme), Alison’s stern friend, gets seemingly broken by the comical twist at the end of second act, where moral contempt is unexpectedly turned into physical attraction, replicating Jimmy’s relationship with his wife.
In a play that is rather unbalanced towards monologue, Alison appears to be, in fact, more of a metaphor than a fleshed out character: she represents the coexisting attraction and repulsion of the working class towards the middle class. She also possesses the beauty and coldness of unattainable perfection.
In this anti “Romeo and Juliet” play, love doesn’t conquer all, but it is achingly conquered: by class division, daily routine, personal traumas, misogyny, narcissism. It is conquered by anger. Education doesn’t always turn out to be liberating, and sometimes only makes social frictions more acute.
The cast’s performances were all very strong, with Clare Dunne standing out for delectably polished naturalness.
I’ve personally found director Annabelle Comyn’s metatheatrical choices unconvincing. The voiceover reading of the playwright’s stage notes, the increasing dissociation of the actors from said notes, the set design (by Paul O’Mahoney) showing the theatre walls around the staged flat, were all aimed at “questioning the author’s voice”, to use the director’s own words. But why should we be questioning an artist’s voice, other than on strictly artistic terms?
While on a purely theatrical level these devices end up appearing as distracting, the distancing and dissociation from the roughness of the text present a more specifically ethical question: should art only be representing the good? Just because some of the issues present in the play – like misogyny and violence – are still painfully current it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see them on stage. Theatrical representation (or any artistic expression, for the matter) was never meant to be an endorsement of behaviour. We do not need to fight literary villains. On the contrary. We need to let them talk, and shout, and be as bad as they can be. Smoothing the unsightly parts of a work of art invalidates the very concept and nature of theatre and its cathartic power.
“Look back in anger” only real – that is, artistic – issue is that it doesn’t always succeed in lifting the autobiographical to the universal. Even so, it will still speak to many today. A complex and controversial work that is definitely worth seeing.
“Look back in anger” runs at the Gate Theatre until March 24. Further info / bookings gatetheatre.ie
* Photo by Luca Truffarelli