‘On the surface, this is an incredibly stylish piece of theatre’. TIM WALKER gives four stars to the Chichester Festival’s Plenty.
If playwrights like Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan wrote plays that largely show Great Britain as she likes to see herself, David Hare has a habit of writing about her as she really is. Hare delights in rocking our foundations – our political system, judiciary, armed forces and press – and in Plenty he dares to wonder if even our wartime heroism is all it’s cracked up to be.
The title is bitterly ironic. Britain was supposed to be a land of plenty after the Second World War, but it was in fact a grim and austere place of ration books and restrictions, and it was the women, as ever, who had to try to get the country back on her feet again.
They hadn’t all of course stuck at home keeping the home fires burning during the conflict. A select and all-too-rarely acknowledged handful were engaged in the Special Operations Executive – Winston Churchill’s so-called ‘secret army’ – and they would appear to have paid a much higher psychological price than their male counterparts, largely because society isn’t really conditioned to cope with heroes who don’t happen to be men.
No fewer than 75% of the women involved in the SOE’s covert activities divorced in the immediate post-war years and this single statistic drives Hare’s play. Rachael Stirling – the daughter of Dame Diana Rigg, and looking so much like her in her younger years – plays Susan Traherne. The woman had worked behind enemy lines in France during the war and the play opens with her trying to come to terms with the mundanity of life back in Civvy Street as the wife of Raymond, a middle-ranking diplomat played by Rory Keenan.
Originally written in 1978, it is a complicated piece that alternates between times and places, but the director Kate Hewitt manages to get across its underlying themes of challenged sexual identity, misplaced patriotism and a country that had in peace time lost the sense of purpose and unity that it had found in war.
Susan was almost certainly suffering from what would now be called post traumatic stress disorder, but to her husband’s boss – superbly played by Anthony Calf – she’s simply mentally ill and a liability.
Stirling, with a voice suffused with gloom, is on great form and she has a tremendous foil in Keenan as her long-suffering husband.
On the surface, this is an incredibly stylish piece of theatre complete with great recreations of ambassadorial black tie dinner parties and parachute jumps into enemy territory. Nina Dunn’s video design is superb with its moody images of Stirling projected on to the walls, and, at the end, the whole stage opens up as much as the characters.
On a deeper level, it amounts to a timely full-blown exercise in psycho-analysis for the nation, and it asks a question pertinent to our times: what ultimately have we got, when we take away the occasional historic moments of unity and acts of heroism, to bind us all together? In short, who are we? I’m honestly not sure any more.