"Theatre is the happiest haven for those who have secretly put their childhood in their pockets, so that they can continue to play to the end of their days."
(Max Reinhardt – New York 1928)
This captures the spirit of Michael Frayn’s new play and its main character. Following the pattern of Copenhagen and Democracy, Frayn uses the facts of real historical events and people as a structure within which to explore his dramatic and artistic themes. So we discover the loveable monster that was Max Reinhardt, probably best know to most of us indirectly through his Direction of the famous star-studded, Oscar-winning Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) with Mickey Rooney as Puck and Olivia de Havilland as Hermia.
If in his grandiose, D W Griffith-scale, theatrical extravaganzas, Reinhardt’s artistic soul belonged in Hollywood; his real spirit, his heart lay in his native Austria and especially the great baroque palace of Leopoldskron just outside Saltzburg whose famous annual festival Reinhardt jointly founded with Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo Von Hoffmanstahl in 1917. Run down when he first bought it, Reinhardt completely restored the magnificent old building and populated it with glittering parties in the years leading up to the rise of the Nazis and the Anschluss in 1938.
Frayn captures the reticent, enigmatic private man only comfortable when he rendered himself invisible against the backdrop of his massive, spectacular, over the top theatrical productions. And here I think is one of Frayn’s themes: the boundary of play and life, the reality portrayed on stage and the reality lived. Each has its own kind of truth and they are not wholly distinct: the truth, authenticity if you will, of what we see on stage is intimately linked to the truths we find in what we may call our real lives. Yet we create a narrative for our lives they do not really possess because we do not experience its end. "Death is not an event in life" (Wittgenstein). Thus the truth of our real life is that we know that it ends but not how or when: in the reality of the theatre we are empowered – for not only do we know how the story ends and when, we have chosen it. There are the truths of the imagination and the truths of the world; and we, our consciousness, our beliefs our intentions, decisions and actions are the point of intersection of these two ‘worlds.’
In Rheinhardt, Frayn has the perfect personality to explore these ideas. Personally private, introspective, enigmatic, Rheinhardt came alive, became in a sense himself, when creating great, extrovert theatrical events – as if to say “come join me, come play, this is as real as we can be." We can see therefore why Leopoldskron was such a deep factor in his life – it was in a sense his set, his own created stage upon which he struggled with the mundane, the upsettingly real of relationships, responsibilities and fears. There is much of the wondering child in Reinhardt and that both attracts us to him as an artist and distances us from him as a man.
Rheinhardt believed that the set of a play was part of the cast, with its own active role to play. Peter Davidson’s monumental set for Afterlife echoes this belief often advancing on the audience with a mixture of gravitas and scale, bordering at times on the menacing. It is to the credit of all the players, especially an excellent Roger Allam as Rheinhardt, that their performances match the scale of this in some ways intimidating playing space.
Typically for Frayn, the historical context has resonances he wants to put into the dramatic mix. With Berchtesgaden symbolically overlooking Saltzburg and Leopoldskron both literally and metaphorically, the threatening shadow of a different, dark kind of theatricality looms over Reinhardt’s life and Frayn’s play. Whether with the Nuremburg rallies or the 9/11 bombings, the fascinating theatricality of certain kinds of awful and shocking reality can disturb us deeply. True perhaps to the history and what else would one expect of Michael Frayn, we see Reinhardt and his theatrical community pursuing the lifestyle with which they were familiar parallel to the political and social upheaval going on around them; a different form of suspension of disbelief.
What is real? What is true? How do these connect to our lives and our sense of reality especially on the stage where what you see is manifestly not real in one sense but intensely real in another? All of these contradictions come together in Reinhardt, and his relationships with actress Helene Thimig (Abigail Cruttenden) his partner and later second wife; with his Mr Fix-it that all artistic geniuses require, Rudolph ‘Katie’ Kommer; and Gusti (Selena Griffiths) part secretary, part acolyte, part gopher, all devoted woman to a man not hers.
To add layers to his exploration Frayn adds a play within a play. Rheinhardt wants to put on a 15th century English religious mystery play Everyman in front of the cathedral at Saltzburg for which he needs the permission of the Catholic Archbishop. Despite doubts about the unconventional theology of the piece the Archbishop agrees out of respect for Rheinhardt and sees the potential benefits to Salztburg. Rheinhardt has a sentimental attitude towards the poor to whom he patronisingly addresses the play and of course finds that it is the rich he ostensibly despises who actually attend the performances while ordinary people with whom he claims to identify and whose plight ‘everyman’ represents in the play, who are neither interested nor well enough off to attend. The two plays then revolve around another with Frayn enjoying blurring the edges of each. One clear signal that we are in Everyman is the iambic tetrameter dialogue but sometimes this convention is ignored. Part of the purpose here is to trace parallels between the ‘message’ of Everyman and the lessons in Rheinhardt’s own life. The figure of Death appears and re-appears in both ‘real’ and Everyman scenes, sometimes almost comically, at others as we might say, ‘deadly’ serious.
In Rheinard’s world he discovers that some poor, ordinary men of Saltzburg like Fredriech Muller (David Schofield) not only feel contempt for the patronising, sentimentality with which Rheinhardt sees the ‘ordinary’ man, but also have racist, contemptuous views of their own fellow ordinary men. For Muller Rheinhardt’s use of the concept of the ordinary man, everyman, for theatrical purposes is just as exploitative as is the traditional dismissive attitudes of the rich. This contempt is empowered on the rise of the Nazis when Muller is made the local Gauleiter. One feels that Rheinhardt has to discover what the more pragmatic Archbishop already knew, that 'everyman’, every man is prone to sin and needs not empathy but the discipline of faith to keep him on track. But then in the context of this period in Germany the Archbishop is not the only leader, first to recognise this fact, if fact it be, and then to exploit it.
Director Michael Blakemore serves Frayn very well in this production as he manages with all kinds of delicious little bits of theatrical business, to tease more comedy and humour out of the set pieces and the comic paradoxes of the clash of the two plays, than is actually written. Rheinhardt’s lugubrious old valet (Glyn Grain) has a nice line in underling sarcasm and mockery that plays off his master’s exaggerated personality and behaviour beautifully. Death’s almost random fleeting appearances now threatening, now bemused; then chagrined at not being taken seriously are also at times very engaging and amusing.
Up to a point this all plays very well. The shifts of tone from almost Coward-like archness and sarcasm to the factual counterpoint of the reality of first Muller’s racism and anti-semitism, his contempt for his fellow man, then political and therefore personal power, create many genuinely dramatic and affecting moments.
It is hard not to see ‘Afterlife’ as an ironic title: Frayn does not explore to any large extent the view of living this life with the next as a determining influence on how to behave; whether driven either by real fear of punishment or the prudence of Pascalian hedge-betting. However in his interwoven realities, theatrical and life, the portrayal of death and Death is both menacing and absurd, fanciful and moving, amusing on stage and ugly in life. To me at least Frayn’s conclusion is that as we live as the intersection between the reality perceived in our imagination and that experienced in our lives, death simply drops out as irrelevant. Theatrically we incorporate it in our story and by definition get it wrong; in life it is the unknown, unknowable conclusion to our ‘play’ that only others, not we, experience. Someone else calls “curtain” when we still haven’t reached the end of our play, our story.
It seems to me critical reaction to Afterlife has rather underestimated it. True, by the very nature of the ideas it explores, it lacks the explicit intellectual and historical gravitas of the superb Copenhagen, or the complex interplay of the personal and political in Democracy. It does seem to me the most philosophical of the three plays though morality, the values we find and assert in our lives, provide a powerful theme underlying all three. The great strength of Copenhagen measured against the other two plays, is that there Frayn resolved perfectly the problem of integrating his dramatic purpose with his chosen historical context. In both Democracy and Afterlife for me, the historical narrative itself weighs down a little at times, the dramatic purpose in using it. He needs the events in America to round off his picture of Rheinhardt and complete his dramatic purpose but this dissipates somewhat the dramatic tension of the piece. However, the merit for me of Afterlife against Democracy which at times I found a little dull, is the perceptive, ironic playfulness of the writer of Noises Off and presenter of What The Papers Say. There is much fun to be had in Afterlife and Michael Blakemore’s production makes the very best of it.
A funny, witty, thoroughly enjoyable evening with more than a few serious ideas resonating in the mind on the way home.
This play closes end of August. NT are offering some inexpensive seats at various times. Good value. Zettel