Photo by Johan Persson
Sunday 11th July 2010 will always be a special day for me for two reasons. It was my first visit to the National Theatre and it was the day I first saw After The Dance. I quite literally fell in love with the production, so much so that, with encouragement from a friend, I queued up for day seats for the final performance. Being on the front row of the Lyttelton for that last performance in August 2010 will be an experience I will never forget and always cherish.
Over three years later and I thought it was time to relive such a special production and today I visited the National Theatre Archive at The Cut in London to watch the production all over again and explore the background material made available.
This was my second visit to the Archive and I think it’s a wonderful facility offered by the theatre, as you don’t have to be a student or theatre professional to go. You simply need to have a genuine interest in the production you want to see and be respectful of the rules when you are there (no photography or recording, no food or drink in the viewing area and no pens, only pencils). The staff are very friendly and helpful and when I arrived the production was loaded on a monitor and ready to go, with the box full of additional materials next to it.
Mainly to make the experience of seeing the production last, I first turned to the box of materials. These provide a vast array of information about the creation of any production. I was able to read through the rehearsal script from April 2010, the Press Night blocking and cueing scripts, details of the props, production schedule, music and much more (there is even a “smoking plot” highlighting all uses of cigarettes in the production). The rehearsal notes were particularly interesting as they revealed insights into the thought processes of the actors when considering their characters – Benedict Cumberbatch requested his hankerchiefs be monogrammed and his lighter be a “Dunhill” style lighter and Adrian Scarborough had requested a distinct glass for his character to use throughout. The notes also make you realise how much thought and detail happens to bring a production to life and the production schedule highlighted how long the days could be, for example on the day of the first evening preview on 1 June, work started at 8:00 a.m. and there was a full dress rehearsal from 2:30 in the afternoon.
As for the production itself, after seeing it for the third time three years on it remains for me the greatest production I have seen to date.
After The Dance was Rattigan’s second play, following the success of French Without Tears and opened in June 1939 to critical praise. However weeks after its opening, the outbreak of World War II caused the play to close early due to the changing mood, which Rattigan wrongly saw as a reflection on the play itself, resulting in him choosing to omit it from his first collection of plays. This meant that over time the play was somewhat forgotten, which made Thea Sharrock’s revival at the National Theatre all the more significant. I have seen commentaries about Rattigan which refer to The Deep Blue Sea having the greatest depth of all his plays, but personally I think After The Dance is more than a match for it and for me it has the greater emotional impact.
The play is a beautiful observation of a specific era in time, set just before the Second World War, which is on the horizon but not yet a certainty. In that moment it shines a light on two very different generations, the younger generation born during or just after World War I, and the slightly older hedonistic generation, who came to maturity in the aftermath of the war and whose attitude to life and to the responsibilities they have to society are very different.
These two attitudes are brilliantly brought to life by David and Joan Scott-Fowler, in whose plush Mayfair apartment the play is set and their friends, who have spent their lives on an endless circuit of parties, drink and drugs, never worrying about the wider world. Peter, David’s cousin and his fiancée Helen highlight how the world is changing. Peter is determined to make something of himself and find a good job to earn an honest living so he can marry Helen – he epitomises a generation which the Scott-Fowlers crowd see as a far more boring one than their own and referring to situations and people as being boring, or being afraid to appear boring are common themes throughout the play.
At its heart however the play is about love – the sadness of loving the wrong person, loving someone who you do not think loves you or to whom you dare not admit your true feelings or loving someone enough to realise the best thing for them is to walk away from them. It is this aspect of the play which has such an impact on me and very few pieces of theatre I have seen have moved me quite so much.
It is difficult to explain why the production is so wonderful, but I think it is due to a number of elements. Firstly, the entire ensemble is superb, which elevates the production to another level of quality and quite frankly the central performances are outstanding. John Heffernen (currently playing the title role in the National Theatre’s Edward II) and Faye Casteloe are wonderful as the younger generation, somewhat perplexed by the attitude of the older characters. Adrian Scarborough is a joy as John, the loyal friend of the Scott-Fowlers, who so convincingly plays both the comedic and emotionally moving moments and his Olivier win was much deserved.
Benedict Cumberbatch, in his debut for the National Theatre (still unknown to the wider public at that time) is superb as David Scott-Fowler, displaying each emotion perfectly. I still find it incredible how he seems to transform into someone so much older than himself in this role. As David Scott-Fowler he not only looks older, but through his voice, mannerisms and the way he holds himself, you cannot quite believe it is the same person. The final act requires a great deal of emotion from him and he conveys it all superbly and you can’t take your eyes off him for a moment.
Then there is the sublime Nancy Carroll (who was the reason I booked my ticket in the first place). She is simply breathtaking in this role – bringing to life in Joan a woman you root for, who has hidden her true feelings of love for her husband for so long, for fear it will make her boring in his eyes. You so desperately want her to be happy. Nancy wonderfully brings to life the comic fun side to Joan, particularly in her interactions with John, but it is the heartbreaking moments in which she is most astonishing. In one scene, she simply stands for what feels like an eternity with her back to the audience and although you cannot see her face, you feel the emotion from her – you cannot fail to understand what Joan is going through in that moment and it had me in tears. Then there is her last scene with Benedict (which I won’t spoil for anyone still hoping to view the production), which is so simple and yet so beautiful. There are few words, and these two talented actors don’t need them to convey the feelings of each character in that moment. I could watch that scene forever. I was thrilled Nancy won an Olivier for her role and do still feel that Benedict should also have won.
The play is obviously superbly constructed by Rattigan, who brings the world in which the characters live to life so vividly and I found it thrilling that at the beginning you think you understand what the play is about and how the plot will progress. However, as the carefree attitude to life starts to be revealed to be a façade, the true sadness of the characters becomes all too clear, transforming the play in to a heartbreaking look at a couple who have never truly understood each other and how much they mean to each other. This production, directed by Thea Sharrock, who took a risk suggesting that it be revived at the National Theatre gets everything right, not only the acting, but also the set that is so stunning you wish you could live there and the costumes (especially for Joan) and music.
At a recent platform event Nancy Carroll chose this as one of the productions most special to her from her career at the National Theatre and it isn’t hard to understand why. I intend to see many more plays and productions in the years to come and hope some will touch me emotionally just as much as this one. What is certain though is that I will definitely return to the brilliant National Theatre Archive again and that today won’t be the last time I see this powerful production. I would recommend that you do the same!