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A CurtainUp London Review
Harlequinade looks at a pair of touring actors, a married couple who are still playing Romeo and Juliet despite their advancing years. It is essentially an old fashioned farce but sadly without enough humour to raise more than an occasional smile. Kenneth Branagh plays Arthur Gosport the aging Romeo whose romantic past catches up with him on his return to the provinces where he seduced a young woman, fathering a child. The snag is that he actually was hitched to the teenage mother of his child and has since entered into a bigamous marriage to Edna Selby (Miranda Raison).
Tom Bateman has the best role. He is Jack the resident theatre director who is considering his alternative career. The sets are of course painted and cheap as they would have been for a touring company in this era.
Although set in the late 1940s, Rattigan is said to have based his acting theatre manager and wife on a couple he acted with in a minor one line role when he was at Oxford. Sir John Gielguid was the actor manager and Peggy Ashcroft his Juliet. Rattigan had the part of a musician who finds Juliet's body and his one line was "Faith, we may put up our pipes and be gone." This line was greeted on the first night with roars of laughter from the audience and not the reaction that the director was looking for from Juliet's death.
In Harlequinade we can feel the younger playwright's empathy with the actors with tiny roles as three of them argue about a spear carrier line. This play may show a theatre long lost which other forms of mass entertainment have replaced. Zoe Wanamaker has the role of Mr Gosport's elderly aunt, Dame Maud who is playing Juliet's nurse in a wonderful horned wimpled nun's outfit.
The hors d'oeuvre, not that Harlequinade deserves the title of a main work; you will remember it was a souffle; is a 20 minute monologue from Zoe Wanamaker as the widow of a dead Yorkshire builder. She always told people that he was an architect. You see architect has more middle class kudos that builder. It seems that he couldn't live up to her expectations and took the easy way out. Rosemary shows a surprising self awareness as she comments wryly that she is talking to a dead "you" and says "Mind you, talking to a live you wasn't that different!" All On Her Own is shown before Harlequinade; it was written as a radio play for Margaret Leighton and its origins defy even the wonderful Miss Wanamaker from making it a West End draw.
If only Harlequinade and All On Her Own had been left where they belong, in a library of theatre archive best forgotten and Kenneth Branagh had revived a Rattigan classic.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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