Given that the central character is British playwright-director Harley Granville Barker, the godfather of 20th century theater, you’d imagine “Farewell to the Theatre” would be merely a biodrama. You’d be wrong. Biographical detail is there but U.S. dramatist Richard Nelson puts it in service of something more distilled. It’s a quiet, dangerously slow burn, but what begins as a conversation piece deepens unexpectedly into a movingly Chekhovian study of ideals and behavior. Roger Michell’s flawless, exquisitely acted production makes the material shimmer.
Returning to Nelson’s preoccupation with theater folk in exile, the play springs from a few factual events in 1916 when Harley Granville Barker was on the U.S. lecture tour circuit and found himself in Williamstown, Mass. The plot, however, is fictional.
In a career-changing performance, Ben Chaplin is calm, authoritative and altogether riveting as Harley. He is staying in a boarding house attached to Williams College belonging to academic Henry (determined and tragically hopeful Louis Hilyer) and his widowed sister Dorothy (Jemma Redgrave). But his fame as a theater practitioner and theorist precedes him and his presence acts as a magnet to the town’s academics and college theatermakers.
Directly or tangentially, everyone is connected to a production of “Twelfth Night” which Harley is to see. Like much of the activity of the play, that performance happens off-stage. And, initially, so do most other events that only exist in reported speech in the dialogue-heavy first half.
With so famous a person in their midst, the focus for this awkward collection of interconnected friends and ambitious acquaintances is on discussion of Harley’s widely respected views about the importance and practicalities of theater. As becomes clear, he’s creatively stalled due to his disgust with current teaching and practice: “Plays are kept going now for months merely as ‘the favor’ of shifting hotel populations; this is not what theater can be.”
But with Harley so circumspect about his own and everyone else’s behavior, it’s initially hard to engage with theatrical discussions which seem bound in history. Halfway through, however, Harley’s professional and personal facade falls away and the subtext comes almost shockingly alive.
Tension grips the theater in the tender, thrillingly understated scene when Harley returns home late from “Twelfth Night.” The game-changing revelations of motive, half-spoken flashes of rage and painful forbearance as Dorothy breaks through her self-imposed wall of patience is heartbreaking. If Vermeer had painted a night scene it would have had the glow with which lighting designer Rick Fisher captures the faces of Chaplin and Redgrave sitting in the vast, echoing darkness of Hildegard Bechtler’s powerfully evocative wood set.
The lack of self-pity that Redgrave lends Dorothy adds to her piercing disappointment. Director Michell balances her solemnity by counter-intuitively encouraging an almost comic degree of skittishness from Tara Fitzgerald as unhappy lecturer Beatrice, would-be worldly-wise but fatally in love with on-the-make student Charles (nicely underplayed William French).
As a travelling performer of Charles Dickens novels, Jason Watkins’ almost permanently sunny Frank is beautifully judged. His lack of display (only very late do we discover he nurses a secret) is a product of Michell’s typically meticulous direction that is as unflashy as the writing. By withholding obvious emotions, Michell and Nelson encourage audiences to watch and listen, a strategy that pays increasing dividends. But if the result is something of a piece for connoisseurs, the compassion-filled ending vindicates the vision of both the text and its ideal production.