Theatre

Afterlife @ National Theatre, London



cast list
Roger Allam
David Burke
Abigail Cruttenden
Peter Forbes
Glyn Grain
Selina Griffiths
David Schofield

directed by
Michael Blakemore
Following on from his last two plays, Copenhagen and Democracy, Michael Frayn once again takes a twentieth-century historical/biographical subject for his new work.

Afterlife focuses on the Jewish Austrian director Max Reinhardt, who established an international reputation with his spectacular shows. Unfortunately, although, as you would expect, Frayn delivers some intelligent, witty conceits, the play never really takes off dramatically, being overwhelmed by massive sets and high-tech staging though perhaps Reinhardt himself would have relished it.

Reinhardt was probably best known for his epic of religious kitsch called The Miracle (with a cast of thousands), but he directed many innovative theatre and opera productions, as well as a famous Hollywood film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rebuilt a number of theatres in Berlin and co-founded the Salzburg Festival. However, the final act of his dramatic life was tragic, as after the Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria he fled to the United States, where he died penniless during the war.

Frayn concentrates on Reinhardt’s yearly staging in Salzburg Cathedral square of the English Christian morality play Everyman (in a version by Hugo von Hofmannstahl), drawing parallels between the play’s hero forced to reassess his materialistic life in the face of imminent death and Reinhardt, whose luxurious lifestyle and extravagant dedication to the artistic ideal is threatened by the Nazis. While travelling around the world in pursuit of various ambitious theatrical projects, he returns to his home in Salzburg each summer, where he has refurbished his baroque palace Leopoldskron in princely style until winter arrives in jackboots in 1938.

Longtime Frayn director Michael Blakemore does the playwright a disservice this time with a show that puts big production values above dramatic momentum, with the storyline being neglected. Peter Davison’s set design is certainly impressive in its own right with monumental cathedral walls giving way to an ornate palace interior while Sue Willmington’s colourful costumes add to the splendour, and Neil Austin’s lighting and Paul Charlier’s sound contribute striking effects. However, the technical scale often seems to dwarf the human content, so that it is difficult to get emotionally involved in the plight of the protagonists.

Frayn himself is guilty of over-complicating matters, with his play within a play structure becoming irritating after a while, moving endlessly between the performance of Everyman and Reinhardt’s life, over-emphasizing the connections and thickly underlining all references. You can see what Frayn is trying to do: blurring the line (or crossing the borders) between life and art, dream and reality, just as Reinhardt believed in the transforming power of theatre which captured his imagination as a poor young man. The trouble is that this multi-layered approach distances us rather than draws us in.

As Reinhardt, Roger Allam tries valiantly to provide the focal point for the drama, but only partially succeeds. With his expansive gestures and controlled energy, he does manage to give the impression of a showman artist who wants to create perfection by manipulating those around him – a bit like a puppeteer seen to comic effect in his choreographing of the servants before a sponsors’ banquet. Ultimately, though, we never feel what drives Reinhardt on underneath his theatrical mask.

Most of the other characters revolve around this centripetal force. Abigail Cruttenden gives Reinhardt’s actress mistress a graceful concern, Selina Griffiths is all fluttering business as his assistant, Peter Forbes is his despairing financial advisor and Glyn Grain is his faithful valet, while David Burke lends gravitas to the Archbishop, Reinhardt’s patron and protector. Only David Schofield’s sardonic local National Socialist (doubling as Death in Everyman) resists Reinhardt’s charisma, though his victory is temporary, even if Reinhardt was sadly not alive to see it end.



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