Saturday 2 July 2011

A Delicate Balance at the Almeida, or Portraits of Desperation

About two months ago I had to go back to the parental home and clear out my remaining possessions. In the course of this I came upon a programme for a production of Albee's A Delicate Balance which it appeared I had been to see at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh in 1997. Astonishingly (given that this production had apparently featured Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith) I could recall absolutely nothing about it – indeed I had booked for this production at the Almeida partially because I thought I hadn't seen the play before. In a bid to jog my memory, I read a synopsis of the play, but this didn't help either. After this evening's stunner I can only conclude that for whatever reason I was not ready to appreciate this play at that time.

The play takes place in the home of Agnes (Penelope Wilton) and Tobias (Tim Pigott-Smith), where also lives Agnes's alcoholic sister Claire (Imelda Staunton). One autumnal evening, they are descended upon by their best friends, Harry (Ian McElhinney) and Edna (Diana Hardcastle) who have suddenly been struck by a nameless fear and are seeking sanctuary. No sooner are they installed in daugher Julia's room, than Julia (Lucy Cohu) returns from the wreckage of her fourth marriage.

The first thing one has to get used to with Albee is the style. There is, or at least it feels as if there is, comparatively little in the way of dialogue. Instead scenes are dominated by sililoquys (often for me with overtones of Shakespeare, or for some peculiar reason the National's recent Phedre). This does occasionally present problems as one wonders why on earth everybody on stage is allowing the monologue in question to go on and on. However, the acting is of such class, and the crises of each of the characters so vividly brought out that it pulled me past this issue. That crisis I have tried to capture by the title of this review – each of the ensemble is facing desperation – all of them on some level I think arising from a failure of connection, and a realisation of the falsity of expressions of love and friendship.

All of the performances are excellent but I would single out those of the two men, Pigott-Smith and McElhinney. McElhinney's character spends much of the play in the shadow of his rather ghastly wife, but his quiet decision that they will go home is powerfully moving. Pigott-Smith really surprised me. I previously saw him on stage in as Henry Higgins in the Old Vic's Pygmalion and something about his performance just didn't quite work. Here he is outstanding. Many of his lines are broken up little interjections and they emerged as part of this detailed characterisation of the quiet man concealing great potentials for anger and grief. The whole builds up to something quite overwhelming as he faces his failure of friendship, and the barrenness of his own home.

A little sideword on staging, lighting and sound. This is all pretty traditional but does exactly what needs to be done – i.e. provide an unobtrusive setting in which these characters can face their despair. It is thus a useful reminder that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time to get a great theatrical evening.

One final note. Among the decisions of the Arts Council in the last round of funding was a significant cut to the Almeida's grant. I was very surprised at the time. This production confirms the high standards to which the theatre works and the talent it attracts. I can only hope the Arts Council will take note and restore the funding next time round.

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