It’s one of the reasons to go to the theater in London to be in at the birth of a David Hare epiphany, but at the end of his new play ”Amy’s View,” the dramatist surpasses even himself in collaboration with an actress, Judi Dench, who long ago exhausted critics’ superlatives. Past Hare epiphanies have called upon blinding lights (”Racing Demon”) or shifts in scenery (”Plenty”), and ”Amy’s View” utilizes both, alongside a faith in the beneficent power of the theater, here embodied by Dench, that will draw a stunned gasp from all but the most confirmed theaterphobes.
The concluding minutes cap what is, by some measure, the best of four scenes in a play whose numerous topics include such Hare constants as the changing fortunes of Britain, the unreliability of journalists and the volatility of love. For most, though, the true subject of ”Amy’s View” will be its writer’s passion for the theater and, on this occasion, for an actress whose astonishing career itself honors the fortitude and resilience that the play enshrines. At the moment, it is impossible to imagine the show apart from Dench’s presence in it: As long as she remains part of the vista, this ”View’s” prospects look bright.
How the play may fare in other hands one hesitates to think in light of a creative team including director Richard Eyre and designers Bob Crowley (sets and costumes) and Mark Henderson (lighting), all at the top of their form. Longstanding colleagues, the men work so integrally together that one is aware of a collective empathy papering over cracks other stagings will no doubt expose. For now, it’s a middling Hare play given a heavenly production that comes to rest in a coup de theatre that literally is celestial.
Playing Esme Allen, a stage actress whose life and career are mapped over 16 years, Dench is in every way the play’s animating force. It’s something of a surprise, then, that the title belongs not to Esme but to daughter Amy (Samantha Bond, a gifted Dench soundalike), whose ”view” — ”love conquers all” — would seem to be the leitmotif of the play. That we are never convinced is one of several crucial flaws in a work that emerges as four playlets in search of a common theme rather than the organic whole of, say, ”Skylight.”
When first glimpsed, Amy has come home to Esme’s wooded Berkshire retreat to introduce to mother her film critic boyfriend Dominic (Eoin McCarthy, making the best of an obnoxious part). It’s 1979, and Esme continues to be a leading light of the “fabled West End.” The play proceeds to span 16 years and the changing fortunes not just of the Esme-Amy-Dominic triangle but of the theater and, by extension, of England itself.
While Dominic climbs the ladder as a media pundit, filmmaker and self-styled theater philistine, Esme’s fortunes flounder. As is often the case with this writer, the characters personify points of view, a fact made clunkily clear in Amy’s parting salvo in which Esme’s romanticized past is set against Dominic’s morally careless ”future.”
Amy’s ”view” might be more compelling if it were dramatized rather than repeatedly announced, and it’s not Bond’s fault that the character we meet seems mostly at odds with the qualities ascribed to her. By her appearance in scene three, Amy’s arrival signals yet another mother-daughter set-to that, however well acted, doesn’t keep shrillness at bay.
Hare is altogether more successful away from domestic and social harangue and into the passionate defense of the theater that brings the play to its tumultuous close. The last scene finds Esme back on the West End in a surprise hit appearing opposite Toby (Christopher Staines), a keen newcomer thrilled to have as a co-star the mother-in-law of a trendy filmmaker like Dominic. Seated in her dressing room before a performance, she gathers the strength to perform in a scene that says as much about the ennobling power of the theater as any amount of the rhetoric Esme scorns. At last, a simple blessing performed, Esme and Toby take to the stage in the kind of purely theatrical moment that represents the art form at its most blessed.