Friday, 21 April 2017

Review The Philanthropist

The Philanthropist
by Christopher Hampton

Through The Looking Glass

First performed in 1970 at the Royal Court,  The Philanthropist, which TLT and her automotive graduate protegé have now seen for the first time, seems curiously prescient.

For nearly a dozen years later, a ruthless civil war erupted in Cambridge University's English faculty. Not that anyone would ever confuse Philip - lead character in the then young Christopher Hampton's early play - with academic Colin MacCabe and his travails

But the mix of naivety, preciousness, viciousness,  potential for violence and grotesque undertones do give a snapshot of a bygone age of ivory tower academia. For this was when students cushioned by grants became postgraduates and then lecturers with relative ease.

Safely ensconced in secure tenure and often given university accommodation, it was possible for a don to have little, if any, experience of outside life and financial worries. All of which didn't preclude some very weird mindsets, vicious infighting and a rash of student suicides.

Philip (Simon Bird) is the embodiment of his linguistic specialism. His very name Philip has partly the same root as his subject, philology. His literal minded manner is not so much honesty, but concentrating solely on words in isolation is his sole compass in life.

Hampton's inspiration was the Molière "type" where a misanthrope is misanthropic, a miser is miserly, a hypocrite hypocritical and Phil the philologist is defined by his love of words. - literally, as philology is from the Greek for "love of language".

The play begins when a would-be playwright (John Seaward) has buttonholed both Philip and Philip's colleague Donald (Tom Rosenthal), known of course, very literally, as Don, for an opinion on his play. The play and the writer's dramatic fate echoes all through the play, as do various iconic staples of French and English literature.

There is a death, a dinner party, a couple separates, another love affair begins and so it goes. While Molière may have been The Philanthropist's inspiration, the most gruesome parts of the play have much more in common with the satiric tales of Saki, author of short stories, novelist and political sketch writer.

For The Philanthropist struck us as a covert state-of-the-nation play written when membership of the then European Economic Community seemed a distant prospect and theoretical academic clashes had taken to running battles in the streets of continental Europe but left England's ancient universities almost untouched. 

It is very much a period piece from an age when Oxbridge and the political establishment seemed to be in an infinite loop -  and in that respect we were reminded of another later play from the Royal Court Theatre, Magnificence.

However the cast of television actors in this production directed by Simon Callow skate over the intricacies of the play and flatten out its complexities. Simon Bird's Philip is sufficiently gawky and chirpy but it's a permanent glaze without any inner moments of anguish.

Tom Rosenthal's Don gives the most spirited performance with a mixture of cynical languidness and puppyish excitement at new developments. As Philip's fiancee, Charlotte Ritchie is suitably brittle with cool, clear banter but never gives any indication as to why she would have been with Philip in the first place.

Lily Cole's damaged nymphomaniac Araminta with an impossibly posh voice certainly has visual stage presence and there's a neat moment when she reminded us of Liza Doolittle after her transformation into a lady (The Philanthropist, we noticed, is a comedy with a very heterogeneous approach to its literary references).

There's also a grand entrance by Matt Berry as infuriating novelist Braham in luscious velvet suit but he also infuriatingly falls into a rhythm, losing much of his lines' meaning. And both he and Cole have problems with pacing and pauses.

Intertwining English and French literature, the play requires razor-sharp timing combined with a shallowness which masks deep despair. This production is apparently the first one which casts all younger actors who are the ages specified by the playwright.

Well, we feel the director of the first production may have understood that the otherwise implausible relationship of academic Philip and his graduate fiancee Celia needed the age difference to conjure up the febrile tutor-tutee atmosphere.

Equally designer Libby Watson's gleaming white set  may reflect the elegant lines of 17th century furniture in 1970s terms but it felt way too chic and abstract for a 1970s' suite of college rooms.

All in all,  this production overall loses its perspective rather than showing an academic life which has lost all sense of perspective. We had but brief glimpses of what it could have been in a better paced production.

Maybe it's only a matter of time before there is a comedy drama on the shenanigans in 1980s Cambridge when the lid came off the pressure cooker of Eng Lit academe, but in the meantime it's a lower range amber light for a superficial take on Christopher Hampton's absurdist comedy of manners.

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