Reviving Dear Liar: Lustless Lions at Play
Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar was Vienna’s English Theatre’s first ever production 50 years ago. Now we see its historic return
Dear Liar is Jerome Kilty’s adaptation of the 41-year correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and the celebrated actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, which began in late-Victorian London in 1899 and ended with the death of "Mrs. Pat" in France in 1940. Excerpts from these letters, interspersed with explanations addressed directly to the audience, provide the dialogue for the work and dictate the onstage action.
In other words, it’s not a play.
According to a 1963 review, reprinted in the programme, the original production, given in New York and London, was "an absolute fiasco". It took the dramaturgical finesse of Franz Schafranek, founder of Vienna’s English Theatre in the same year, to turn it into something fit for the stage.
The programme doesn’t say whether or not the current production is Schafranek’s. It isn’t a fiasco, anyway. But given Shaw’s famous wit and the incisive response it drew from Mrs. Pat, it’s not as much fun as it might have been. It does tell a story, and it’s not without laughs, but it seems Kilty simply wasn’t up to the challenge of exploiting this long and lively correspondence.
A big part of the problem is the absence of sex. There was none in the relationship, and apart from a couple of adolescent references to "your bed" and "my bed", apparently none in the correspondence, either. This wouldn’t matter if there were instead some kind of sexual tension – or any kind of tension – onstage. "We are like lustless lions at play," complains Mrs. Pat, before taking a real lover behind Shaw’s back.
Though married, Shaw had a nervous aversion to sex, and Kilty does seem to be on to something by making the details of Shaw’s mother’s cremation the longest and most involved section of the piece. (By contrast, even the death of Mrs Pat’s son in the First World War lasts only a couple of minutes.) But it leads nowhere.
There is material enough for dramatic tension: Mrs. Pat is almost killed in an accident; her career collapses as youth fades; she is abandoned by her husband and living in poverty; a wealthy Shaw declines to help. But the pair of them merely chuckle through it all, each scoring a succession of smug points in written repartee. Did they love each other? Did they hate each other? Was Mrs. Pat just flattered? Was Shaw, with his "timid little soul", just scared? Kilty draws no psychological depth out of his characters. They natter on through the decades.
Where the dramatist has missed the mark, the task necessarily falls to the director. Unfortunately, in this instance, the director misses it too. London-based Tom Littler presents Kilty’s narrative without nuance; a couple of jokes with a suitcase and a walking-stick and a few brief sound effects notwithstanding, the piece remains overall disappointingly flat.
Littler is not much helped by his actors, who progress from the ages of 43 to 84 and 34 to 75 respectively without any perceptible change in stance or movement or voice. "I’m getting dewlaps," says Mrs. Pat, looking at herself in a mirror; "I’m growing old," says Shaw. Words alone aren’t enough to convey these things, and what they might imply, to a theatre audience.
The passage of time, so clear in the letters themselves, presents a general problem for Littler and for set designer Terry Parsons, and they find, alas, a most inelegant solution: Shaw and Mrs. Pat announce the ongoing dates of the letters from which they read; at the same time, the dates flash up, superfluous and distracting, in the top corner of a huge screen behind them. The screen itself, a pretty pink backdrop, is not otherwise used at all. It simply stands there, like a wallflower at a country ball, waiting to be brought to life.
Painted scenes or even photographs might have been projected onto it to help communicate not only advancing time but also the many changes of location, which are also clumsily announced in the screen’s top corner: ‘Bavaria’; ‘The Train to Liverpool’; ‘Day 4 of Rehearsals’; ‘2 DAYS TO GO’. They glare out incongruously into Parsons’ luscious pink and golden belle époque set, a perfect match otherwise for the lovely little theatre itself.
The beautiful Moir Leslie, her voice beautiful, too, fits easily into the role of darling of the late-Victorian stage. The real Mrs. Pat played Ibsen and Hofmannsthal and Shakespeare: though she apparently had trouble putting on a Cockney accent for the role of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, she can’t have been a bad actress. But in a rehearsal from that play reprised as part of Dear Liar, director Tom Littler unaccountably presents her as a melodrama queen with no talent whatsoever. Why?
Richard Derrington as Shaw, uncomfortable in his Irish accent, lacks the engaging, exasperating GBS mix of charm and self-opinionatedness. Once again, we are left to rely on the text alone to specify what stage presence and direction fail to convey.
Dear Liar is at once the newest and the oldest of the English Theatre’s productions; this is the fourth revival of the play since the theatre itself opened with it fifty years ago in 1963. All the less excusable then, that the two-page background to it is given only in German in the otherwise attractive programme. Surely, over the space of half a century, someone might have found time to produce this informative text – and the interesting reviews of previous productions, too – in English.
Dear Liar: through 19 Oct., 19:30
Vienna’s English Theatre
8., Josefsgasse 12