A Gentleman Never Tells
by Barney Norris
directed by Christopher Haydon
Whoever thought to bring these two writers together is one hell of a matchmaker. If Barney Norris’ previous work swarmed the stage with heartfelt jabs, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a heavyweight that doggedly takes the blows before revealing its mettle in the final round. Both authors are accomplished in the theme of crepuscular love, and here they promise a compelling headline.
Ishiguro’s Booker-winning novel is told through the eyes of Stevens, head butler of the once-celebrated Darlington Hall. He is less an unreliable narrator than a narrator unrelated to his own emotional life, and is all the more engaging for it. His delicate obsession with duty and dignity undermines his own desires, both in the macrocosm of appeasement and the microcosm of his own heart. The question here is whether Stevens’ tender literary life can translate to the bolder language of the stage.
Lily Arnold’s sumptuous set reveals at first a rain-streaked interior, sixteen bells strung high to remind us of the Sisyphean duties of a country household’s staff. Elena Peña’s sound design gives us a downpour haunted by gramophone jazz, reminiscent both of a dilapidated manor and a car journey – an inspired touch, being the two central settings of the novel. There’s no stately exposition: the text jumps directly into the plot and screeches off. Stevens’ American employer is off to town and suggests the butler make use of his car to take in the sights of the local country. Stevens’ modest protests – “It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls” – are overcome by a sudden inspiration to visit Darlington’s previous housekeeper, Miss Kenton. As in the novel, it’s a blunt set-up to a story that scratches deeper and deeper at an aching wound. Stevens’ West Country odyssey leads to a married woman who remains, as is clear to all but himself, the love of his life.
He sets out to Sophie Cotton’s surging strings, with Lucy Cullingford’s movement shifting the scenery succinctly from hall to country pub and back again. What is clever about Norris’ adaptation is the way scenes from past and present interweave as the journey progresses. What is ingenious about it is the moment that these temporal slips come to a sudden halt. It is as if love truly can stop time. By the finale of the play Stevens is for once rooted in the moment – his moment, and one that does not involve “work, work and more work” stretching out like emptiness before him. The production’s rolling landscape finally freezes, framing the two figures within all the more powerfully.
The cast are West End-quality, and it would be of little surprise if Christopher Haydon’s production rounds off its national tour there. Pip Donaghy, as Stevens’ faltering under-butler father, cracks hearts as he blames his increasing infirmity on cracked steps. Edward Franklin, too, carries off Lord Darlington’s godson with aplomb. When Stevens is mortified to have to convey the ‘facts of life’ to the young man, Norris slips in Ishiguro’s glorious misunderstanding that his attaché case is “chock-full of notes on every possible angle one can imagine.” In a play populated by older white men, it is left to Franklin to portray the wracked conscience of the youth horrified by fascist appeasement, and he does so very movingly. Stephen Critchlow is rather fantastic, switching from taunting aristocrat to pub soap-boxer (“You can’t have dignity if you’re a slave,” he says, to Stevens’ poignantly muted reaction). The female roles are, given the source material, necessarily limited. But Niamh Cusack is splendid as Miss Kenton, girlishly brazen in her early scenes and fearsome in her later frustration. Through Cusack we understand that it is not the ‘great gentlemen’ Stevens serves but she herself who is his rock of humanity.
The heart of this adaptation, however, must be Stevens. Whether checking diligently to ensure no one sees him tip a café worker, or finally breaking as he admits he has on his drive been thinking about his father (and therefore Miss Kenton’s past kindnesses), Stephen Boxer inhabits the role beautifully. Most likely you will never have wanted to simultaneously shake and hug a character quite so much. As his master’s guests buffet him with orders about bunions and comical dispensations on the birds and the bees, he is drawn irresistibly, again and again, to Miss Kenton. It is a fine study in dementia from Boxer – not overtly, but in the sense that the older we grow the more we become victims to the petrification of memory. The structuring that enables this is magnificent insight from a playwright of Norris’ young age.
Such is the strength of the love story between Stevens and Miss Kenton that the issue of appeasement, as expositional subplot, becomes a tentative foot on the brake. It is the moments where politics has a direct effect on their relationship that illustrate the historical context best. Having informed her that they have been ordered to let go two of their Jewish staff, Stevens leaves her staggering with a simple: “Thank you for the cocoa, Miss Kenton. It’s high time I went to bed.” Moments like these put us straight into the shoes of Kenton’s willing, waiting, anguishing heart.
“Strange, isn’t it, the coincidences that lead one’s life?” Stevens muses during their reunion, seeming not to realise that coincidence has little to do with it. It would take the most unaware of us to deny our actions are often led by subconscious rigidity. As they share an umbrella, we see a man and a woman crushed by loyalty – he to his master, she to the ideal of marriage. Old themes they may be, yet I doubt there’s a person in the audience who hasn’t submitted to duty and then agonized over whether they made the right choice. Yet this production, I think, offers hope. There is a moment at the end of the play where our protagonist, after a lifetime of serving those thrust arbitrarily above him, stops to consider himself in the mirror. For the first time he seems to acknowledge his true place in the world – perhaps even as the protagonist of his own life.
photos | ©Iona Firouzabadi