Look Back in Anger at the Gate Theatre, Dublin
Look Back in Anger
by John Osborne
The Gate Theatre, Dublin
10 February 2018
Dir: Annabelle Comyn
Cast: Lloyd Cooney, Clare Dunne, Vanessa Emme, Ian Toner
I could be wrong, but I got the impression that director Annabelle Comyn and the Gate Theatre don't like John Osborne's Look Back in Anger very much. Osborne's landmark play might have sent shockwaves through the theatre world in 1956 that resonated for the best part of half a century, but our attitudes towards some of its themes have changed considerably, particularly in recent years. Osborne's English view of class and gender politics now feels very tired and dated, the casual misogyny and the ineffectual rage of the white male intellectual with a chip on his shoulder no longer speaks to a contemporary audience the way it once might have. It's not an angry young man who we are likely to find rebelling against social conservatism now as much as angry young women who have had to put up with the likes of Jimmy Porter for far too long.
And when you look at Look Back in Anger dispassionately - as the Gate's production sets out to do, examining it from a present day as a dramatised slice of life firmly lodged in the 1950s rather than as a relevant piece of contemporary social realism - you can't blame them. It's an awful play. Mind you, there are a lot of awful old plays around and some of them are still being staged, but usually it's when a director or theatre company want to re-evaluate a piece with the intention of finding some redeeming features that resonate better with a modern audience. Few take the time and effort to stage a play - particularly a play as important as Osborne's - with the intention of trashing it. This is the first time I think I've ever seen anyone stage a play that appears to hold nothing but open contempt for its main character, its writer and the play itself...
...but I could be wrong about that.
The fact that you're not watching a 'straight' performance of the play is indicated immediately by the open artificiality of Paul O’Mahony's set which shows the actors waiting in the backstage space around the otherwise fairly accurate period 50s' set. The actor playing Helena sits at the side of the stage with a microphone and a laptop and starts to read aloud the original stage directions to highlight and make you acutely aware of what the playwright wants to show you, and what he wants to show you judging by the respective positions of the men and the women on the set (Jimmy and Cliff reading and debating about the Sunday papers while Alison slaves over the ironing board wearing a slip and a shirt that assigns her proprietorially to Jimmy) is to show you how women are weak, inferior and owned. On the other hand, maybe it's just that the director Annabelle Comyn wants you to think that the author views them this way.
As the performance of the play progresses however, the characters start to deviate away from the stage directions. This is nothing new and there are conventional ways of adapting stage directions if you want to do that, but here the fact that the original directions are read out loud from the side of the stage does make rather more of a point. It's particularly pointed when it is shown to be the female characters who react differently towards the rather more supplicating and submissive words and directions given to them by a male writer. But it's not as simple as that and, as I said, I could be wrong about the nature of Look Back in Anger and the director's intentions for it...
...and the reason I could be wrong is because of the reaction of the audience at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Certainly around me, much of the audience seemed to be engaged with Osborne's play and taking it pretty much at face value. It is still a powerful work that is capable of shocking, even if inevitably not in the quite same way that it might once have done. The audience gasped at Jimmy's more cruel outbursts, were aghast at the dramatic twists and audibly muttering disapproval at the reactions or non-reactions of the women characters and their enslavement to Jimmy's inexplicable charisma. Or perhaps it's not so much surprise as recognition and identification, having presumably seen similar acts of futile defiance and quiet submission to patriarchal authority in their own lives, in their own families and among friends and neighbours. Whatever the dated ideological flaws in Look Back in Anger, there's still a measure of truth in it for many not of the #MeToo generation.
In such a production then it's difficult to draw a line between performance and commentary. The cast are evidently 'in on the act' so to speak, and the performances can seem a little mannered and old-fashionedly theatrical to emphasise the out-of-date and at odds with the times nature of the work. Along with the meta-theatrical construct, there is also commentary or recognition on how a writer and a director can manipulate characters towards their own ends. Despite the artificiality of the construct and the pointed directorial criticism or even subversion of the piece, Annabelle Comyn and the cast's own act of rebellion manages - intentionally or not - to find a midway compromise that permits the audience to draw their own conclusions, looking back in anger at the misogyny that it perpetuates, but at the same time acknowledging that there's still a truth in it that many haven't yet got past or forgotten.