Violence continually invades the genial surrounds of Christopher Hampton’s “The Philanthropist,” a play about the limits of geniality to which the years — and an ace production from a busy David Grindley — have been very kind. Premiered at the Royal Court in 1970 and a Tony nominee the following year, Hampton’s text gains newfound gravitas thanks to a quietly rending perf from Simon Russell Beale, here marking his first Donmar appearance in a contemporary play.
“I’m very grateful to all these people for whiling away my time,” Philip, the Oxford philologist at the play’s anxious center, says of the film and theater makers who have kept him occupied, if not necessarily involved. But auds lucky enough to get into a show entirely sold out before opening night will discover where gratitude begins: with the play’s gleaming-eyed, newly silver-haired star. A commercial transfer must surely follow.
Russell Beale has given us linguistically deft yet dysfunctional academics before, though this perf is no retread of his gig in Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers.” Looking older (and more distinguished) than in the past, his voice softened, he’s the anagram-happy lynchpin of a play colored throughout by atrocity, and by the pervasive grayness of a university existence that has devolved into its own hellish oxymoron: a full life turned, as Philip sees it, into “an empty one.”
“The Philanthropist” constitutes a remarkably full-blooded account of bloodlessness, and helmer Grindley anatomizes its social make-up with the same scrupulous detail he brought to the contrasting environs of “Abigail’s Party” and “Journey’s End.” Before the successful novelist Braham (Simon Day at his most ripe) has even spoken a self-serving word, his preening temperament is evident from his clothing. Wearing a frilly shirt and a suit you could skate on, Braham looks as if he’d be happier sharing a stage with Liberace than gleefully disparaging the human race.
And yet, for all the period fringe adorning the various temptresses who hover about Philip, Hampton’s play doesn’t share the flippancy it so artfully doles out. The celebrated first scene still lands with a genuine jolt, its collapse into bloodshed of a piece with a world that has scant time for academe’s blithe, brittle wit. (Newcomer Simon Bubb dominates the Pirandellian start with elan.)
In a running joke that may be somewhat less funny these days, Philip’s donnish disengagement takes place against the assassination of much of the British cabinet and a separate campaign whereby lunatics are killing off Britain’s most prominent writers, one by one. The country is being run, we’re told, by the Minister of Sport, which may be the best argument of all for not watching the news.
Is Philip alarmed? Yes, though hardly by external affairs. Why direct fear toward the dangerous terrain beyond some impressively book-lined walls when there’s an enemy far closer to home: himself?
Although the sleek furniture suggests a correspondingly well-upholstered world, civility here sits waiting to go splat. Proof comes via the account from a fellow prof (Danny Webb) of a particularly disillusioned student who has taken to pyromania.
Philip never goes that far, though he achieves much the same rueful awakening as his misanthropic equivalent in Moliere, the writer whom Hampton skillfully inverts. “I’m a man of no conviction, or at least I think I am,” Philip muses in a second act that amounts to an elaborate self-critique. (In Tim Shortall’s smart design, even the books are faceless.) Having spent an unsuccessful night in the company of the come-hither Araminta (a feisty Siobhan Hewlett), Philip risks losing the young fiancee, Celia (Anna Madeley, all black-clad self-possession), in whose company he seems to abandon his gift for language.
“You just sit there like a pudding, wobbling gently,” the bride-to-be says by way of reproach, and no offense is intended in saying the line could have been written for this leading man. And yet, in what may be the most clamped-down perf he has ever given, Russell Beale shows a stout exemplar of decency gone worryingly still inside. Tolerance and compassion are great, but they don’t confer happiness.
There’s comedy to be had from the sight of Philip heaping sugar on his cereal — at just that moment, of course, when things have begun to sour. (Earlier, he’s an image of delicious indecision, trying to decide which of two drinks to pour for a verbally imprecise guest.) But Russell Beale, as ever, goes further. Launching a paean to “words, words,” he soon after shows the inability of Philip’s lifeblood to forestall emotional paralysis. “God help us all,” he says in a hush at the first-act curtain, and the entreaty sighs mournfully — unanswered and unanswerable — in the air.