I do desperately need to feel I’m moving on,” Susan Traherne (Cate Blanchett) remarks not long into the mournful new West End revival of “Plenty,” David Hare’s defining 1978 play about the dystopia that has remained England since World War II. But Susan’s remark could apply equally well to the evening’s Australian star, Blanchett, who suggests that she is every bit as restless and fond of risk (albeit of a more positive nature) as the highly disturbed character whom she here brings to such febrile life.
The performance won’t be to everyone’s taste — its intensity is deeply un-English, which, of course, is part of the point — any more than Hare’s jagged, fractured narrative spanning almost 19 years will please those merely content to celebrity-spot. But as abetted by a terrific supporting cast who cumulatively match Blanchett’s Susan blow for blow, this year’s Oscar-nominated lead in “Elizabeth” delivers the goods in conjunction with a play whose Ibsenesque fury rings out no less resoundingly than it did in 1982 on Broadway, under the author’s direction of a then little-known Canadian firebomb named Kate Nelligan.
Hare’s current (and stunning) Broadway entry, “Via Dolorosa,” sounds a lament for an England starved of passion and belief amid which this author-turned-performer has made his career, and one finds the same theme expressed even more vitriolically in the first Hare play to create an international noise. (Meryl Streep starred in Fred Schepisi’s only intermittently successful 1985 film version.) Passion may “come down a blocked nose,” or so it is tartly put, in the drawing rooms of a waning power in which “Plenty” largely takes place. But it’s one of the invigorating ironies of the play — and of a production from Jonathan Kent that falters only in its crucial closing scene — that its requiem for the land in which Susan loses her sanity is itself so fierce that one has now to wonder whether in retrospect Hare wasn’t being a shade harsh on the sterile, bureaucracy-laden hell that he calls England.
Hare’s then-partner Nelligan launched a blazing (if recently all too quiet) New York stage career with this play, where her clamped-down bravura kept erupting into bilious life as if to stave off suffocation at every turn: its suppressed rage cut like a razor through the splintered shards that make up the play’s twelve scenes, as they cross-cut between Susan’s life of “plenty” in 1962 Knightsbridge as bored wife to a foreign office functionary (played by Julian Wadham) and one of idealism and hope joined up with the French Resistance during WWII.
Among the other places visited en route to the now-celebrated irony of the final line: a basement flat in London’s Pimlico that doubles as a Bohemian meeting-point and a murky Blackpool hotel room lit with real chiaroscuro elegance by Mark Henderson. (Bjornson’s sets, meanwhile, take an elegant leaf from Bob Crowley’s shutter approach in”Amy’s View.”)
There’s no reason, of course, why Blanchett should repeat Nelligan’s approach , any more than Maria Bjornson’s astonishingly beautiful (and highly pictorial) design should copy Hayden Griffin’s more hallucinatory work on the original staging. To that end, the athletic Blanchett cuts an impulsively physical presence whose notable animation reinvents Susan just as Janet McTeer’s similarly active Nora in “A Doll’s House” several seasons ago refashioned another heroine who won’t be hemmed in. (Only Susan’s Hedda Gabler-esque affinities now seem forced, as regards the wielding of a gun that marks the play’s stagiest conceit.)
Forever extending her limbs in an effort to burst the confines of her own body — not to mention that all too real English abstraction called class — Blanchett presents so uncaged an animal that she risks becoming her own worst enemy at those moments when she reaches a pitch that, seemingly, leaves her nowhere else to go.
And yet, Susan’s questing intelligence finds its match in an actress who makes the character far less an authorial symbol — the fractured embodiment of a fractured country — than did Nelligan the first time around. Indeed, for all its lasting political bite (as an essay on the futility of change, “Plenty” signals one of Hare’s abiding topics) it is possible to view the play on this occasion as the clarion call of a woman fighting mental collapse, as acted by a performer who clearly must one day play Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
It’s tempting to regard “Plenty” as a one-woman show, since Susan is hardly ever offstage. So it’s Kent’s very real achievement to cast the play (mostly) to Blanchett’s level, with a memorably sorrowful Wadham as well as Jeremy Childs and Richard Johnson all first-rate playing poshly spoken employees of an empire that — or so Childs’s Whitehall official relates — took ten times as many people to dismantle as it ever did to administer. As the Burmese recipients of Susan’s sarcasm at its most unhinged, Burt Kwouk and Jacqui Chan comprise the wittiest of double acts in a play about diminution and despair that continues to apply right now to any country outwardly defined by plenty and yet fighting impoverishment — whether spiritual or financial — within.