- Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, and: Gone with the Wind
In the chapter “Stereotype” in her visionary book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart urges directors to ask themselves: “What do you do with the audience’s inherited cultural memory?” Two recent London productions drew inspiration from classic romantic films and provided excellent examples of how a show’s success or failure can hinge on its ability to dramaturgically manage the role of cliché and stereotype in performance. Kneehigh Theatre, savoring the clichéfor its ripe theatricality, offered an audacious revisualization of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, while Trevor Nunn and Margaret Martin’s seriously flawed musical version of Gone with the Wind never rose above clichéand turned a soaring epic into an overlong pageant. Kneehigh’s director deftly managed the performance of cliché [End Page 131] by respecting her audience’s shared experience and transcending it through broad but passionate performances and metaphoric, easily-identifiable stage images. Ironically, Gone With the Wind, in its attempts to not offend with prejudicial and gender stereotype, ended up offending more with one-dimensional performances manipulated less through artistic discovery and more through misplaced political correctness. The result is that Brief Encounter freshly displayed a compassionate humanity that resonated with the audience, while Gone with the Wind never broke free of its inherited myth and merely managed to manipulate rather than move.
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Kneehigh’s production of Brief Encounter, performed in a cinema, ingeniously wove Coward’s popular film with his play Still Life, on which it was based, fusing film and live performance in a production that said as much about our love of film as about our love of being in love. From the moment I entered the theatre, it was clear from the classic red-velvet stage curtains, the live jazz combo playing 1940’s tunes, and the flashlight-wielding usherettes that this theatrical event was equally invested in both the performance and the audience. Already, the audience had been cued that they were a crucial part of the story’s collective memory. Kneehigh’s actors, as Bogart might observe, “connected us with time.” The curtains parted, a blackand-white film rolled, and in another sly wink to formulaic devices, a film title informed us that the motion picture had been cleared by censors and “certified for hopeless romantics.” With that, Rice not only declared homage to old movies, but also blatantly affirmed the inescapable sentimentality of the familiar love story.
Two audience members in the theatre’s front row began arguing loudly: Laura (Naomi Frederick) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock), who were two lovers in the midst of ending an affair while the movie plays above them. Rice set up a brilliant meta--theatrical moment as Laura is torn between the black-and-white life projected on the screen where her faithful husband Fred (Andy Williams) calls for her, and the very real life “in color” with her lover in the smoke-filled theatre. Echoing Mia Farrow’s enchanted escape in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Laura suddenly jumped onstage and slipped through the screen just as her image appeared in the film next to Fred. This cinematic Laura gazed back to the viewers, reminding them again of their complicit role in the storytelling. A mournful train whistle blew and the scene moved to Milford Junction Café, where the desperate lovers met, and where most of the action takes place. Proprietor Myrtle Bagot (Tamzin Griffin), her beau and station conductor Albert (Andy Williams), her distracted assistant Beryl (Amanda Lawrence), and Beryl’s boyfriend Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin) all inhabited the café. In the film Brief Encounter, these secondary characters mainly offer comic relief, whereas...