The Royal Shakespeare Company pulls out the stops in its epic — and, running over four hours, epically lengthy — revival of John Osborne’s 1965 “A Patriot for Me,” leaving out the one essential element: a galvanic leading performance.
The first London production of an Osborne work since the author died in December, the play is bound to pique the curiosity of those for whom its depiction of homosexual repression can now be taken as a self-portrait of sorts in light of post-humous disclosures of a serious (and secret) gay relationship in Osborne’s own life during the 1950s.
Quasi-autobiography aside, “Patriot” contains a riveting portrait of suppressed desire in its central character, Alfred Redl, a much admired lieutenant in the Austro Hungarian empire’s Imperial Army in the lead-up to World War I. It’s a particular shame, then, that film actor James Wilby (“Maurice,” “Howards End”) isn’t better in the part, since Redl’s evasion and duplicity make for potentially explosive theater.
In the end, Redl explodes in a scene of sustained bile mixed with self-hatred that could only come from Osborne. But if that third-act harangue at last fires up Wilby’s performance, it also exposes its central flaw: His is an overly cautious reading of a man defined by caution, who dropped his guard only to confront exposure, blackmail and death.
The play spans various European capitals, and almost 25 years, to tell a story considered so inflammatory at its Royal Court premiere that the theater was forced to become a private members’ club so as to resist the censorious objections of the Lord Chamberlain. (The straitjacket of empire depicted in the play could well serve as an equivalent to the repressive England both loved and loathed by Osborne.)
Three decades on, its numerous male couplings are no more shocking than Redl’s dramatically protracted self-discovery is surprising. The revelation now lies in Osborne’s often overlooked skill as a large-scale dramatist who could write as fluidly for 40 as he did in “Look Back in Anger” for five.
The sheersweep of the play is one of the appeals of Peter Gill’s production, even if it could drop a military drill or two and still make its point. Pamela Brown’s imposing architectural set moves easily between the bedroom and the military board-room, pausing in act two to accommodate a drag ball wherein lies the heart of the play. Flouting expecation, Gill stages the scene with its transvestite revelers — Denis Quilley’s excellent Baron von Epp chief among them — addressing the audience, rather than one another, lest its point go unheard.
Kicking the train of his elaborate ball gown behind him, von Epp sounds every bit his author, as he throatily extols “the individual against the rest, the lonely against the mob.” That creed, of course, was Osborne’s own; few have ever mistrusted so fiercely the mentality of the herd, which may be why “A Patriot for Me” leaves one looking back not in anger but in admiration at a writer without whom the British theater would have been all too sedate.