By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It's tempting to dismiss Look Back In Anger, to say, "I get it. Realism. Kitchen sink. Angry young man." But with his current revival at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, director Sam Gold wants to blow those assumptions apart.
That's only fitting, since John Osborne's play has always been about subverting the familiar. When it premiered in London in 1956, British theatre was lousy with boulevard comedies and polite drawing room dramas. Look Back in Anger, however, delivered Jimmy Porter, an intelligent but frustrated working class sweet seller who lives in a squalid apartment with his friend Cliff and his upper-middle-class wife, Alison. The British class system oppresses these people, and in turn, they oppress themselves with an endless cycle of insults, apologies, kisses, and arguments.
It's hard to overstate how shocking this was. According to legend, audiences gasped when they saw Alison's ironing board, since the tools of the working class were never part of the theatre. Many people hated the play for being uncouth and furious, but critic Kenneth Tynan called it a "minor miracle" for just these reasons. Soon enough, it inspired a wave of "angry young man" dramas.
Today, of course, we expect to see ironing boards on stage. We expect to meet people in rough circumstances who take their resentments out on each other. And that's why it might be hard for a modern audience to connect with a traditional, realistic production of the show. If it was groundbreaking yesterday, then it's trite today.
Gold knew this could happen. "I wanted to take a fresh look at the play, so that it was a lot less about an audience's expectations being met and a lot more about exploring and engaging in the world that Osborne created," he says.
He's most interested in how Jimmy and Alison abuse, enable, and occasionally support each other. "I wanted a way to investigate the subtext and psychology of this young marriage," he says. "The way I've worked on the play has a lot more to do with the relationships and trying to help the audience understand those relationships from the inside."
That's one reason he chose expressionistic flair over kitchen-sink realism. The set, for instance, is only five feet deep, which makes it seem like the actors are walking on a narrow ledge. That underscores how trapped the characters feel and it gives their arguments claustrophobic intensity. "There's no way for the performers to relate to each other realistically [in such a tiny space,]" Gold explains. "So what winds up coming out are these postures and movements that are a little more formalized and imagistic." For instance, when Jimmy (Matthew Rhys) gets in Alison's (Sarah Goldberg) face, she has to bend her body back like a dancer, holding a distorted pose.
Meanwhile, the stage is covered in meaningful junk: tin cans, newspapers, old shoes. It's not the realistic mess of sloppy people. It's a physical manifestation of the rage they can't express.
Gold wants the audience to feel surrounded by the play. For the first few minutes of the show, the auditorium is flooded with intense light, and when actors enter, they often come through an emergency exit door. Both choices suggest the characters are as much in our world as their own.
"That was a way for me to free myself from expectations," Gold says. "But also, it allowed me to say that the space could be about me trying to connect with the emotional life of the characters. Hopefully, it allows the audience to really hear the words. I think somehow taking some of the trappings of realism away put a lot of focus back on the language and what Osborne wanted to say."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor