A Lesson onstage [by Matt Baker]
The play was written by Willy Russell and premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 1980. In 1983, Russell wrote the screenplay for the film that would go on to win Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael Caine), and Best Actress (Julie Walters) at the BAFTA Awards. A remake was proposed with Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. As a film it stands on its own, as a play not so much.
Though it should. The story is fundamentally solid. Pygmalion mythology and the concepts of power, knowledge, authority, jealously, and love (not necessarily romantic), especially between a man and a woman, are filled with potential dynamism. The action, however, is somewhat stagnant and practically hinders this. It is a heavily dialogue driven piece, which, ironically, would maintain what poignancy it has if adapted to a radio play. Russell did this in 2009. Unfortunately, he was 29 years too late. The first three or four scenes could easily be condensed into one, which would allow for the actual conflict to surface earlier in the first act, as opposed to making the audience wait until moments before the interval. The characters’ points of views, the conflicts, the reactions, even the jokes, are all predictable, and Rita’s penultimate speech to Frank robs the audience of the work they’ve done, explaining everything his character thinks and feels. This is not to say that the play is bad, merely that it does not achieve what it could based on its premise.
George Henare and Jodie Hillock, as Dr. Frank Bryant and Rita respectively, are both extremely talented actors. Their portrayals are solid in that they embody a full life to their characters outside of the University office which they then bring to the stage. They have to, because it is up to them to relay this information to one another and the audience. Henare has an almost imperceptibly gout-induced shuffle, and occasionally roars out a line as only an academic professor and trained thespian can, while Hillock maintains a consistent drive to match her male counterpart. Although there is the odd vowel slip from Hillock’s Liverpudlian, her attempt at reaching an upper-class dialect from her working class roots is remarkably apt.
Director and set designer Adey Ramsel keeps things simple, making good use of the office space and allowing the outer actions to come naturally through the progression of each scene, avoiding any contrived stage direction. There is even an especially nice moment of symbolism in which Frank and Rita swap places both literally and figuratively. The set is a ‘perfect mess’, and I simply couldn’t imagine a more accurate design.
Musically, I question the semiotic use of particular songs. Ode to Joy seemed to be used ironically, and I would presume that the relevance of Edvard Greig’s Morning Mood from Peer Gynt would be lost on much of the audience. I also found the constant blackouts in Nik Janiurek’s lighting design quite jarring. It also led to what felt like the actors striving to create pantomimic moments for the audience to hold onto while ‘time passed’ between scenes. However, this is (again) a problem with the periodic narrative of the play. Erica Bryer’s wardrobe coordination suffered from quick changes and prevented both Rita’s individuality and Hillock’s comeliness to truly shine, and when combining these elements of spectacle I can only conclude that the world of the play had not been firmly set.
In saying that, there are no significant problems with this production, only issues that arise from the play itself. Henare is inarguably one of New Zealand’s finest actors (if not, the finest actor), and Hillock is certainly garnering the body of work and recognition she deserves. The Factory Theatre in Newmarket is quaint and intimate, and a potentially untapped resource. There is a story here, and although it may not be one that necessarily works on stage, it is certainly one worth listening to when told by these two actors.
Educating Rita is presented by the Newmarket Stage Company and plays at The Factory Theatre until 8 September. For details see iTicket.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Joanna Page