THE COUNTRY GIRL
by Clifford Odets.
Tour to 18 September.
then Apollo Theatre 6 October-26 February 2011.
Runs 2hr 20min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 9 August at Richmond Theatre.
Unfashionable intensity in emotional backstage drama.
This production has reached a bit further than the play being rehearsed and tried-out in Clifford Odets’ 1950 drama. And it hasn’t lost its lead to Hollywood, nor is its director, like Bernie Dodd, having to fight a tough producer such as Phil Cook to bring in a drunk has-been replacement in whom Bernie alone sees remaining greatness.
But the fight between the theatre men, like Bernie’s struggle with the once-great Frank Elgin, isn’t the main contest. That’s between Bernie and Frank’s wife, the country girl of the title. Georgie is the only character from outside the theatre, and fights for her husband, despite being undermined by him and both attacked and seduced by Bernie.
There’s a lot of Odets’ theatrical background with America’s Theatre Guild and Group Theatre, the Stanislavski-based company that tried to work as a repertory company. They too lost ensemble members to celluloid stardom, and Bernard’s rehearsal methods early in the play resemble Group work.
Yet, expect nothing Chekhovian; everything’s written at the high-intensity familiar from US cinema of the time, without irony or emotional restraint. That’s a lot to take nowadays. Emotions pour out in answer to emotions, all fully articulated – at times more a high-octane Socratic dialogue than the realistic interplay of character.
It’s this which has kept Odets from retaining the resonance of Eugene O’Neill, who set his long dialogues at a distance, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, who gave theirs a spine of political reinforcement or the pity of emotionally broken characters.
Rufus Norris can’t change this, but he takes every chance to create lighter moments. He uses the backstage setting to give prominence to scene-changes, showing how theatre intrudes on Frank’s life as stagehands build and define Frank’s territory. Jenny Seagrove has Georgie’s determination but not much of her country origin, while Mark Letheren’s director sticks to his guns without really being the bully described.
But Martin Shaw carries conviction as the unpredictable, self-destructive genius, throwing costume around in wild frustration as I’ve seen actors do when the lines won’t come, and achieving greatness without regard to the cost for others.
Frank Elgin: Martin Shaw.
Georgie Elgin: Jenny Seagrove.
Bernie Dodd: Mark Letheren.
Phil Cook: Nicholas Day
Larry: Peter Harding.
Paul Unger: Luke Shaw.
Nancy Stoddard: Thomasin Rand.
Ralph: Tom Cornish.
Director: Rufus Norris.
Designer: Scott Pask.
Lighting: Mark Howett.
Sound: Ben Harrison.
Costume: Jonathan Lipman.