'Breakfast at Tiffany's'

Sean Mathias' production loses an awful lot in translation.

Sean Mathias’ production of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” eschews the falsifying 1961 Blake Edwards movie, in favor of putting Truman Capote’s original novella on stage. Out go no-sex-please-we’re-Audrey Hepburn and racist Mickey Rooney, in come snatches of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and frocks to die for. So far so good. But an awful lot has been lost in translation: chief among them are charm, drive and drama.

The problems begin with casting. All tossed blond hair and wide cheekbones like a young Faye Dunaway, Anna Friel’s Holly Golightly is certainly beautiful enough to entrance Joseph Cross’ earnest, fearfully young writer William. But although physically both languid and headstrong, Friel’s voice is too precise, reproving and, whenever the accent slips, English for Captote’s “wild thing.”

Lean, blinking Cross also sounds vocally strained, not least by his struggle with an Alabama drawl. More problematically still, he seems far younger than 32-year-old Friel. It could work as a tale of a man falling for an older woman, but that’s in neither the novella nor the script. And because it never for a moment looks as if he could handle her, their almost-relationship is drained of tension. Also, when Holly’s long-lost husband Doc (John Ramm) pitches up wanting back the child-bride he married at 14, you start trying to work out how far into the second decade of his search he is.

Faced with multiple locations in a theater with almost no wing space, designer Anthony Ward concentrates on height. Constantly repositioned twin fire-escapes create everything from stairwells to walls within a stylized, sky-painted set. Its openness, however, often leaves the actors stranded. Lighting designer Bruno Poet saturates the spaces of a cut-out Manhattan skyline, but intense, contrasting colors cannot compensate for the production’s lack of emotional variety.

Late in the first half there’s a sudden, tender moment in a library where William summons courage to place his hand over Holly’s. At last, the dramatic temperature rises because something tantalizingly unexpressed is happening between two people. But that, in turn, just illustrates that the relationships have been left unexplored in too much of the preceding dialogue and action.

Gwendoline Christie finds unforseen tenderness in brittle Mag Wilwood as well as effortless comedy hauteur. But Mathias pushes almost all the supporting cast toward overstatement, with lots of presentation and what looks like perilously little listening. Party scenes have thin atmosphere because everyone is either braying or doing generalized “party acting.” And while Samuel Adamson’s adaptation ups the comedy by building up the part of an opera singer neighbor, Mathias casts a non-singing actress who is forced to mime. 

“I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart,” cries Holly, before leaving with a touchingly defiant lift of her chin. Typically, Adamson’s line is in keeping with Capote’s original poetic tone. But keeping faith has its pitfalls.

The novella’s horse-riding sequence falls foul of clumsy staging, and the sequence where Holly gets rid of her beloved no-name cat sums up the misconceived approach. The scene is faithfully reproduced, with the released cat immediately running into the wings (cue sentimental audience sigh). But the cat’s unstageable struggle, Holly’s distressed reaction and, crucially, Capote’s metaphor, go for nothing.

Aside from the lure of a much-loved title, by the end of this flatly paced evening it’s still hard to see what anyone thought could be gained by this staging.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Theater Royal Haymarket, London; 900 seats; £49.50 $79 top

Production

A Colin Ingram & Peter Kane presentation with John Gore and Thomas B. McGrath, by arrangement with the Theater Royal Haymarket Company, of a play in two acts by Samuel Adamson, adapted from the novella by Truman Capote. Directed by Sean Mathias.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Anthony Ward; lighting, Bruno Poet; original music and arrangements, Grant Olding; choreography, Wayne McGregor; sound, Paul Groothuis; production stage manager, Simon Wood. Opened, reviewed Sept. 29, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Holly Golightly - Anna Friel William Parsons - Joseph Cross Joe Bell - Dermot Crowley Mag Wildwood - Gwendoline Christie O J Berman - James Dreyfus Doc Golightly - John Ramm Mr Yunioshi - Nicholas Goh Madame Spanella - Suzanne Bertish
With: James Bradshaw, Paul Courtenay Hyu, Felix D'Alviella, Annie Hemingway, Sam Hoare, Natalie Klamar, David Phelan.

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