By Simon Gray
Theatre Royal, Brighton
12th January 2013, 14.30
Directed By Richard Eyre
ST JOHN QUARTERMAINE – Rowan Atkinson
ANITA MANCHIP – Louise Ford
MARK SACKLING – Matthew Cottle
EDDIE LOOMIS – Malcolm Sinclair
DEREK MEADLE – Will Keen
HENRY WINDSCAPE – Conleth Hill
MELANIE GARTH – Felicity Montagu
Quatermaine’s Terms was written in 1981, but is set back in the 1960s at a language school in Cambridge. It is one of my favourite plays. I can relate to the ELT / EFL (English Language Teaching / English as a Foreign Language) setting and I can confirm its accuracy. When I started teaching English, there were still characters around from that era: Lieutenant-Colonels, ex-civil service of Ceylon, failed Latin or French, mistresses, all with classical educations. I know the setting. The play missed out the other stock character, the alcoholic (Believe me!). Watching it you keep thinking, ‘true … true … true …’
People have told me in whispers which Cambridge school it was based on (the best-known one), that Gray taught there briefly as a student, and that they could put real names to the characters in the play, even that I’d met some. The constant references by Eddie, the director, to the sound of bells is a clue. That’s not how fiction works though, and Gray would have combined traits from many characters and invented the best stuff. That’s what you do.
The original run starred Edward Fox as St. John (Sinjun) Quatermaine, with Prunella Scales as Melanie, and was directed by Harold Pinter. There was a classic BBC TV production in 1987, with Edward Fox, Eleanor Bron and John Geilgud, and when I saw subsequent stage productions, Edward Fox’s influence on interpretation hung heavy. Edward Fox was on tour with it in 1993. Gray chose the name Quatermaine, (H. Rider-Haggard’s heroic Brit) and coupled it with the rather silly aristocratic St. John. There is A Fox connection or two. Harold Pinter had written The Servant (1963) in which brother James Fox had played a decaying aristocrat, gradually dropping out of connection to reality. The Fox brothers were grandsons of the heroically named Samson Fox.
A later radio production put Michael Palin in the lead role. We saw it at Salisbury Playhouse in 2003 with Rupert Wickham as Quatermaine. This time around, in 2013, it’s Rowan Atkinson, trialling in Brighton and Bath before the West End run. Coincidentally both the 1993 production and the 2008 touring production ended at the same Theatre Royal in Brighton. Brighton is a good town for presenting the play. After all, the five major ELT centres in Britain are London, Bournemouth, Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge (that’s probably the correct order too).
See: production history
This is a play that intrinsically “works”. Rather like The Importance of Being Earnest it works even with a few people in a room reading aloud: the text is that good. All the above just reinforces my view that this is a major dramatic work.
The play stays in the staff room of the language school, has a tight cast of seven, and takes place over three years. I have seen Rowan Atkinson on stage before, many years ago, touring his two man show with Angus Deyton. We were so keen not to delay seeing this production that we opted for the 100 mile drive to Brighton rather than the 65 miles to Bath a fortnight later.
Edward Fox’s interpretation had reminded me of Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby The Scrivener. Bartleby faded away through inaction, his catch-phrase being a polite, self-effacing but determined, I’d prefer not to. I’m aware of this, having lifted the same theme from Melville for an ELT short story, Barnaby (about a computer which ‘would prefer not to’), now out of print. Fox was gentle, self-effacing and eventually just faded. His decline through the play was steadier and he faded away at the end.
Rowan Atkinson is very different, even more inclined to drift out of the here and now, yet equally true to the script. He is also well-mannered and gentle, and his good manners are the only thing holding his excruciatingly lonely life together, surrounded as he is by people in relationships and with ‘families’ (in the broadest sense) however rocky those relationships might be. His polite and misdirected enquiries about his colleagues are all the more painful, because this Quatermaine is putting so much agonized effort into them, rather than as Fox did, reacting ever more blankly and automatically as the depression, or pre-senile dementia coupled with narcolepsy, or whatever it is that ails him gradually descends.
Rowan Atkinson is a great actor and this is a first-rate performance, full of nuances, poignancy, and reactive work to all that’s going on … he is present virtually all of the time, going through four of the five scenes (or time frames) dressed in the same immaculate three-piece suit … much better, incidentally, than his costume in the shot used for advance publicity and the programme cover. Everyone else is changing … partners, costume, hair, beards, pregnancy … but he sits right through it all. Rowan Atkinson’s timing and pausing are impeccable. Edward Fox is still the template for future productions, because there is so much in Atkinson’s facial mobility, strangulated noises, half uttered sentences and gestures that make him unique. No other actor could do it like that. Much as we loved previous productions, this hit us hardest, and we came out convinced it was the best.
There is an irony in Rowan Atkinson doing this EFL teacher role: Mr Bean was the most popular authentic British material used worldwide in ELT classrooms in a survey we did ten years ago on classroom video use. The joy of Mr Bean for EFL is the lack of words: students can talk about it and suggest the words. Matthew Cottle who played the would-be novelist / EFL teacher, Mark Sackling, in this play, featured in our ELT series My Oxford English, though as scriptwriters it was the only one of our EFL videos we did not see being filmed, and so unfortunately we never met him.
The character of St. John (Sinjun) Quatermaine is one familiar from language teaching in the 1970s. The lone male … more often male … who has drifted into EFL because they happen to have the requisite education. In the early 60s when this play is set, this meant having attended public school and one of the great universities. As we heard Clive Anderson say of Wodehouse characters while we were driving back from the play, ‘educated beyond their intelligence.’ Intelligence isn’t quite right … but ‘social intelligence’ fits. Quatermain is one of the saddest characters I know, and Rowan Atkinson wrung every drop of poignancy from it.
The character of Derek Meadle (Will Keen) is the future … northern accent, educated at Hull University (ah, as was I …), enthusiastic about teaching, deeply resentful of uncommitted time-servers like Quatermain. And he is also obnoxious, scruffy, needy and accident-prone. He mocks his students funny accents, which the others are too polite to do, but he also socializes with them outside school, likes them, and gives a speech about putting effort into remembering students’ names and faces as essential, that is almost word for word what I have said myself in teacher-training. I can put names to facsimiles of Derek’s character from ten years later, but then again I have worked with facsimiles of every character in the play. That’s how true both the script and the interpretation of this production are. These are people who are ostensibly in the business of communication, but who just never listen to each other. I spent the 70s trying my utmost to eradicate this 60s ELT image and make things truly professional. I like to think we succeeded in doing so. The setting … the converted old house with a staffroom full of sagging furniture … is a familiar ELT setting, though where I worked it was ten times bigger, up-to-date, and wasn’t at all like that. Bournemouth differed in having a core of bigger and more modern-looking schools than most EFL centres. But I have toured on book promotions, attended seminars, teacher-observed and talked in enough EFL schools to know that this kind of physical school setting was the norm in other towns, and still exists, even in 2013. The owners living on the premises is another one: true.
On the school owners, a brilliant device, is that Eddie Loomis (Malcolm Sinclair) who runs the school has a partner who is never seen, Thomas. I like the unseen but powerful presence. Eddie, as the ageing gay, gets sicker scene-by-scene, and Thomas, his partner, has died at the start of scene five. I assume this is an AIDS reference, which is definitely early-80s, when it was written, not early 60s when it was set. The other issues in the play are all standard EFL school problems. We have fluctuating student numbers causing angst, staff on temporary contracts versus those on permanent contracts, students getting into trouble in the town etc.
Henry is the academic tutor (what we would call Director Of Studies) but indicates no interest in EFL, though he does at least finally recognize that poor Quatermaine is worse than useless in the classroom. I’ve worked with DoS’s like that. Through the 70s the school I worked at also had lectures on British Life & institutions. As in the school in the play, these are “overtime” and some teachers are happy to see poor attendance, allowing them to cancel or finish early. This was so familiar. We had a similar set-up and I ran into many arguments when I ran the programme, by choosing people to give the lectures on a bums on seats basis. Students had four hours in the classroom, but could attend three optional lectures or further activities a day without charge. If they attended all seven hours, they progressed better. Some teachers believed these lectures should be shared evenly as overtime. I think Henry would have gone along with that. I didn’t and chose lecturers who always got a full house, and some did eight or ten a week. Others did none. I suspect the hapless Derek would have agreed with me.
Every member of the cast stamps “PERFECT” on their interpretation. Melanie is a marvellous part, going from comedy, to tragedy, from repressed passion to suspect murderess to member of the God Squad, laughing genuinely, then hysterical, then stoic in the face of imminent arrest, playful, sexy, tearful, depressed, suicidal. She is a lone female, or rather a female stuck with a crabby stroke-victim mother, but she is also someone who can relate, and is still seething from an unrequited love affair with Henry in the past. Felicity Montague follows Prunella Scales and Eleanor Bron in playing it, and has nothing to fear from such stellar competition. Five star performance in a carefully-written role. Melanie is a character who deserved a sequel to this play all of her own.
We found ourself discussing the unseen backstory of both Melanie and Quatermaine, which is always the sign of a good play. In the last scene (“Eighteen months later”), where they have gathered at Christmas because Thomas has died, Quatermaine is wearing an evening suit, his first costume change. He had nothing to wear it to, but his landlady had asked him to move his trunk from her cellar and he opened the trunk, found it and wanted to see if it fitted. We surmised that he’d been with the same landlady since coming up to Cambridge, had drifted from college to language teaching, and had last worn the suit at the May Ball in his final year.
The projected time changes at the start of scenes are important. I’m glad they did them.
The stage set is bog-standard conventional. It all takes place in the staff room with French windows and a conservatory at the back and doors at the side, though I think only the stage left side door is used. I take the extreme conventionality to be theatrically ironic as well as perfectly-suited to the play.
Often preview performances are slightly off in timing, and you know they’ll tighten up later. This one appears to be perfectly tight right now in its first week. Writing, acting, directing and all the technical aspects combine for a faultless rendition of a truly great 20th century drama.
THE TV PLAY
The BBC TV play with Edward Fox, Eleanor Bron and John Geilgud is (currently) on YouTube, in twelve x nine or ten minute sections. With YouTube you never know how long things are up for, as they are usually breaking copyright (and I have to keep asking them to take down our videos, though some of those are still commercially available). I’m not a fan of YouTube putting up what they like when they like at all … but I did watch it, but only after doing the review here. What you really lose in the TV play is the continual visual presence of Quatermaine. The TV camera cuts to whoever is speaking, and while the director often had Quatermaine leaning into shot, it’s not the same as seeing Quatermaine in his chair reacting to every line in the stage play. Every character is physically different to the stage cast too. The 2013 RP (Received Pronunciation, or “BBC English”) accents of this Cambridge educated staff room are definitely less “Advanced RP” (with the vowel sounds of the aristocracy, such as Prince Charles’ “hice” for “house”) than the accents were in the TV play from 1987, but that is also a change in RP, defined as the non-regionally marked language of educated speakers in the South of England. Linguists have noted how this has shifted closer to Estuary, the accent of the wider Greater London area, over a quarter of a century. The 1987 ones definitely sounded posher. We know Quatermaine is posh enough to have played croquet on his aunts’ lawn, but while Fox sounds extremely posh, Atkinson is just posh!
The programme (£3.50) is poor. It lists all the facts on Simon Gray and the cast that you can easily find on Wiki and IMDB. Why have an essay by director Richard Eyre on the plays Gray wrote? I want to know about this production, and this concept. We don’t find out. Even the cover photo is wrong, with a costume less impressive than the play. Interview the director. Talk about the theme and background. I could have accessed all that IMDB stuff on my iPhone while I was waiting for it to start.
The set design … it looks right. The set is meticulous, even down to the filthy conservatory roof streaked with bird crap … no one had ever cleaned it. The lockers are excellent … wood, hand made. The tea / coffee area with assorted cups is right. The bookshelves are wrong. Sorry. There are hardback books (in sets of four), and row upon rows of 1950s Penguins. They’re teaching English LANGUAGE not Literature. Even by the 60s, I’m sure they would have had group sets of EFL text books, not Penguin novels. Say “Present Day English For The Foreign Student” by Frank Candlin (which I think is seen in the BBC TV play), with its different colours per level. They’d have had twenty copies per level. They would have had single reference copies of many textbooks, and large sets of dictionaries and grammar books. There’s no need for complete accuracy, but blocks of group sets of textbooks, not Penguin fiction. They would also have had files of (in those days) Gestetnered handouts. Language schools usually have dusty cupboards of old text books, but I wonder if any have survived from the 60s? In Bournemouth we had a major cull of old books in the late 70s to provide free books for the Vietnamese refugee programme, and I suspect similar things happened elsewhere. Sadly (as a text book writer) I have to admit that these things have zero secondhand bookshop interest, so might be difficult to source. The explosion in text book design started circa 1967 to 1971, so after this era.