Director: Alec Burt
Script Writer: Terrance Rattigan
Producer: Leena Rivas
Venue: Drama Barn
Dates: 10th – 13th of May 2013
The director and screenwriter Andrew Stanton said that one of the most important commandments of storytelling is to make people care. Alec Burt’s poignant and probing adaptation of The Browning Version by Terrance Rattigan fulfils this requisite with profundity. The gratuitous act of giving an apple to your teacher is tenderly reworked and explored – moving us to the core of our beings.
The play revolves around the life of Mr Crocker-Harris, an English public school teacher of the Classics in the 1940s. We see him face numerous trials as he is stuck in a soulless marriage and is on the verge of early retirement. It is when he receives a gift that the heart rendering connection between a pupil and his master is illuminated. Money, pride and material needs become inconsequential when overshadowed by acts of kindness.
From the start I developed a partiality towards Mr Crocker-Harris: the privacy, intellectual depth, and non-materialistic elements of his character, accompanied by a demanding yet gentle teaching approach, reminding me of one of my own high school teachers. Toby King (Mr Crocker-Harris) delivers an outstanding performance, as he slowly reveals the fragile and caring man beneath the hard exterior. It is fundamental in the development of such a character to focus on subtleties of expression; the simple gestures of spilling his sherry and gripping the corner of the sofa in support displaying how King wholeheartedly immerses himself in his role. The fragility of Mr Crocker-Harris, however, rules out for me the possibility of him ever appearing as ‘the Himmler of the lower fifth’. Consequently, a sterner side to his character could be exhibited with greater force at the start of the play.
Burt decides to take a naturalistic approach to the script, employing the practices of Stanislavski. This emotively demanding process was of huge benefit to the realism of the play; rehearsals utilised the tool of the ‘magic if’, which focuses on internalising the emotions, aspirations, and situations of the characters. The result of this is particularly evident when the interrelations between three characters dominate the stage and each manages to hold their unique presence – silences proving as effective as words.
The decision to put on accents is always a difficult choice to make. The decision to do so is a wise one as it adds to the realism. Then again, Mrs Crocker-Harris’s (Frankie Mitchell) nasal tone accompanied by an articulation which rivals Prince Charles, though impressive, is on the brink of artificiality. Her saving grace being how it fortifies the class divisions present in her marriage and general relations.
To truly invest in the realistic approach, the decision to keep the same setting throughout enables there to be intricate details, the presence of hefty pieces of furniture grounding us in the play’s reality. Surprisingly, the claustrophobia of the static setting used for multiple purposes does not detract from the realism; instead it heightens the tension between characters, while symbolically capturing the entrapping conditions of their lives.
In Burt’s debut performance as director, he decided to stage this play so that York’s Drama Society could be part of Rattigan’s theatrical rebirth. This impressive production compliments not only Rattigan’s writing, but the casts overall ability to immerse themselves in the theatrical material. When entering the Drama Barn you are transported back, not only in time to the 1940s, but also to secondary school, sitting row on row awaiting the teacher’s entrance, which delivers beyond measure.