Monday, 24 October 2016

Review The Autumn Garden

The Autumn Garden
by Lillian Hellman

Sweethearts and Scoundrels

On a trip to Alabama, TLT recalls a memorable tour of antebellum mansions on the Gulf Coast where a genteel Daughter of The American Revolution evoked times past. Including the institutionalised prostitution (which crossed the racial divide) of which the sons of the leading families partook, practically as an obligation, from an early age.

The Autumn Garden, first produced in 1951, deftly combines the secrets and scandals of life in the American Southern states, national and international politics and Hollywood in a deceptively languid piece by Alabama-born Lillian Hellman, also a former Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) script reader and a Hollywood screenwriter.

In fact, despite the recorded Chekovian inspiration and obvious similarity with fellow southerner Tennessee Williams, it struck us an American Terence Rattigan might be an apt comparison in Anthony Biggs' s production which, by the end, packs a definite punch.

Set in 1949, the owner of one of those Gulf Coast antebellum mansions which has seen better days, Constance (Hilary MacLean), has sold her family's New Orleans' town house on the death of her parents and attempts to resolve a debt-ridden estate.

She has been reduced to running the family's holiday home as a summer boarding house. with the help of black factotum Leon (Salim Sai), dependent on the family's circle of friends for guests.

Now she nervously awaits the return of an old beau, glib artist Nick Denery (Mark Healy)  with his wife Nina (Madalena Alberto), from Paris with their German maid (Leonie Schliesing) where he apparently spent the Second World War fairly comfortably under Nazi occupation.

Meanwhile, also staying as guests are a distinguished Boston-born member of the military, General Benjamin Briggs (Tom Mannion), who seems ready to embrace a new progressive order and is estranged from his ditzy movie-going southern belle wife Rose (Lucy Akhurst) and their two grown up sons.

Constance, at a time the European continent had become dependent on American Marshall Aid, has taken in her seemingly demure French niece Sophie (Madeleine Millar), daughter of her dead brother Sam and a French seamstress.

Sophie has come to a business like arrangement to marry young bachelor Frederic Ellis (Sam Coulson) who has literary aspirations and a substantial allowance from his grandmother (Susan Porrett), via his mother Carrie (Gretchen Egolf). Also on the guest register is hard-drinking banker Ned Crossman (Mark Aiken) whom Denery confuses with his brother Willy and whose love for Constance has now become a jaded memory.
The Autumn Garden is surpassed in fame by Hellman's two other plays Little Foxes in which former MGM star Elizabeth Taylor made her stage debut in 1981, and The Children's Hour.

Despite an effective set of faded glory designed by Gregor Donnelly, it struck us that maybe it was written as a movie, or even a soap for radio or that brash relative newcomer on the media scene, television. Still there is plenty of stagecraft, and the ensemble all give fluent and precise performances.

Once the second act gets underway, the previous hints about Hollywood politics and cover-ups become more explicit yet the Chekovian story of unrequited love and lives in the American South remains undimmed and stands on its own account.

Hellman herself was, to say the least, a divisive character. Once she, Showboat star Paul Robeson and Death of A Salesman playwright Arthur Miller were grouped together as radicals. She and lover Dashiell Hammett refused to name names to the House of UnAmerican Activities (unlike, for example, MGM actor Robert Taylor),  but she later irretrievably tainted her copybook.

In the public perception she remained a seemingly unreconstructed defender of Stalin, spouting falsehoods in a novel and movie she insisted was a partial factual memoir (even if Tom Stoppard, amongst others, has questioned the nature of literary memoirs in his recently revived Travesties), exposing herself in an undignified spat when she accused a fellow novelist of slandering her as "a liar" on a TV chat show and fell into the hands of lawyers just before her death.

Yet, as Biggs implies in the programme notes, whatever her mendacious literary and monetary manoeuvring, her reputation could well have suffered, with her skill as a writer downplayed, because she was a woman who played a man's game but was not tolerated as a man would be.

Just as Hellman's own reputation can be simple or complex, subject to the motivations of those portraying her, so The Autumn Garden is skilfully constructed, a simple tale of the South or a multifaceted piece. An amber/green light for a worthwhile  and careful revival.

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