American audiences probably won’t be as taken with the eccentric appeal of British artist Stanley Spencer — or with Pam Gems’ Olivier Award-winning bio-play “Stanley” — as Londoners were last year. Off-setting his petulance and childish egomania with artistic brilliance, Spencer, judging from Gems’ portrait, was more interesting than likable, as accomplished in his painting career as he was a nasty failure in private. Given Stateside audiences’ unfamiliarity with (and lack of inherent interest in) either the public or private Spencer, “Stanley” must win over Broadway audiences without the aid of goodwill Brits have for their beloved artist, who died in 1959. Overlong and, yes, more interesting than likable, “Stanley” (like Stanley) has more than a little difficulty balancing its appealing artistry with a tiresome self-indulgence.
That said, this Royal National Theater production does offer genuine rewards for those with the patience to spend nearly three hours with a character few will find endearing — and with an actor brave and talented enough to forego audience sympathy.
Antony Sher, reprising his London performance (along with three other principal actors), so completely inhabits this character, with his bowl haircut and a 10-year-old’s temper, that Stanley Spencer becomes as vivid as the three-walled mural of the artist’s work used as backdrop to the drama.
The play, meticulously staged by original London director John Caird, follows Spencer’s life between the years 1920 and 1959. Still suffering the psychic devastation of WW I, Spencer falls in love with the doting Hilda (Deborah Findlay); in short, flowing scenes we’re shown the sexual excitement of their early courtship and the more settled nature of their early, baby-filled marriage.
Soon enough, Spencer has fallen for the beautiful Patricia (Anna Chancellor), a mercenary artist manque who’s involved in a lesbian relationship yet flirtatiously encourages the attentions of Spencer as a means of career and social advancement.
In Patricia, the self-interested Spencer has met his match in narcissism. “I refuse to be poor — I like things!,” she cries to her lover Dorothy (Selina Cadell), her rationalization for carrying on with the fast-rising Spencer. It’s a selfishness equaled by Spencer’s own demands that wife Hilda accept his infidelity. “This is what I want,” he whines. “This is what I need!”
After he cruelly abandons and divorces Hilda, his second marriage is a mockery, with Patricia continuing her relationship with Dorothy and giving Stanley not so much as a kiss goodnight. She takes the house, the money and everything else Stanley can give, leaving Hilda a broken woman and Stanley a miserable sap.
But Gems is too smart to blame Patricia for all of the emotional turmoil wrought on the Spencers. Stanley’s nonchalant barbarity and Hilda’s neurotic masochism (this woman is a walking “kick me” sign) drain away virtually any empathy we might feel, at least until a bedridden (and alone) Hilda unleashes her buried pain and anger in a speech unrivaled in intensity by anything else in “Stanley.”
But even Hilda’s poignant outburst might be too little, too late to generate much emotional rapport with the audience. Easily an hour too long, “Stanley” trudges repeatedly over ground that quickly becomes familiar — Hilda wants Stanley, Patricia wants money and Stanley wants Hilda and Patricia. The play, like its anti-hero, spends much time stamping its foot and demanding that we care.
That we care as much as we do is owed as much to the trio of lead actors as to the dry, heady play itself. Although his character demonstrates precious little maturity from beginning to end (we last see Spencer speaking to the long-dead Hilda as he paints, but the truth is he seems as much in love with the sound of his own voice as with the memory of the woman whose life he destroyed), Sher gives an impeccable performance, never once cozying up to the audience with phony warmth.
Findlay employs the same restraint, as staunch in her refusal to beg for the audience’s sympathy as Hilda is for her husband’s.
In Patricia, Chancellor has the most interesting character, and by far the most fun to watch. As blithely destructive as she is pathologically needy, Patricia is one of theater’s most compelling monsters in memory, and Chancellor does her proud. Her scenes with Cadell are among the more energetic in the play.
Director Caird navigates the Circle’s in-the-round performance space with considerable agility, although the distancing effect of watching the other half of the audience watching the play only adds to the rather chilly intellectual tone of “Stanley.”
Tim Hatley’s set, dominated by the scaffold used by Stanley to paint his large murals, is attractive and efficient, in keeping with the generally top-notch tech credits that Circle musters. But whether the production attracts (and keeps) the new, youthful audience that the financially beleaguered Circle needs remains uncertain at best. If ever a play was geared toward the theater aficionado, “Stanley” is it.