“Everything about him seemed to burn,” we are told of Jimmy Porter (Michael Sheen) not long into Gregory Hersov’s latest production of “Look Back in Anger,” this director’s second staging in four years of the seminal 1956 John Osborne play. (The previous one was at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.) But Jimmy isn’t the only fiery participant in a compassionate and searing National Theater production that couldn’t feel less like a retread or also-ran.
Those dreading this play after its glum 1989 remounting — directed by Judi Dench and starring the then-married Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson — are in for a particular jolt. Under Hersov’s startlingly confident hand, Osborne’s cri de coeur seems far more than a theatrical icon getting yet another dusting-down, while the staging, in its own, quiet way, is as revolutionary as Osborne’s text once was. After all, it’s not every production of “Look Back” that dares to look ahead psychologically, re-evaluating the play less as a celebration of Jimmy Porter than a critique of him.
It’s tempting, of course, to think of Jimmy as the late author’s own exalted alter ego, especially now that Osborne’s posthumous persona is so inextricably linked with the more acerbic broadsides of his best-known creation. But if one can separate the writer from what he has written (not always easy with this play), a subtler, ultimately far more crushing portrait emerges of two fantasists, all too fully acquainted with life’s pain and pathos, who have spent so much time goading one another that they have learned, in some despairing way, that the game is all they have.
That explains the renewed poignancy of an ending that can be hard to stomach, in which Jimmy and his wife Alison (Emma Fielding) are reunited following an interregnum in which Alison’s seemingly eternal place by the ironing board is given over to Helena (Matilda Ziegler), a sexy interloper who is not beyond a well-turned barb of her own. To be sure, there remains an inevitable sense of male wish fulfillment in Jimmy’s ability to change partners at will, even without the panegyrics in his defense that both women dutifully trot out, Linda Loman-style, demanding that attention be paid.
But as reconceived by Hersov and enacted by the blazing young Sheen, in the male performance of the year so far, Jimmy may indeed be (as Helena says near the end) a displaced radical born out of his time. And yet he’s driven as much by fear and terror as by his often-nasty need to tease. (If anything, Osborne lays on the amateur psychologizing a shade thickly, twice trumpeting Jimmy’s self-defining speech about this jazz-obsessed sweet-seller’s acquaintance with death.) And whereas in his Broadway-bound perf as Mozart in “Amadeus” Sheen suggested the mania of genius, his posture this time around is defensive and wary, the provocateur himself in need of protection.
Add to that a crucial charm that feeds the comedian Jimmy would like to be, and there is every reason for our sustained interest in a character who it’s all too easy to want to smack: In his own hurtful way, Jimmy commands Alison’s love and respect, and Sheen goes on to gather up the audience’s, too.
This “Look Back” is no one-man show, even if the verbal parry-and-thrust of the play sometimes seems intended to leave its other four players running in place. As Jimmy’s “beautiful, great-eyed squirrel,” the excellent Fielding is nobody’s doormat or fool, any more than Helena — in Ziegler’s clear-eyed reading of her — is simply the other woman. The rounded assessments extend still further to Jason Hughes’ sweet-natured, highly self-aware flatmate Cliff and on to William Gaunt in the small but important role of Alison’s father, a representative of the old order whose ironic self-regard isn’t in fact far from that of Jimmy, his supposed social inferior.
The staging is, indeed,full of such gentle reverberations, even if its expert physical components (Howard Harrison’s infernal lighting, particularly) leave no doubt about the rainy Midlands hell that the Porters inhabit. “Gentle” may seem an odd word to apply to so celebrated a dramatic excoriation of the well-bred play that preceded it. But it’s perhaps the ultimate irony of an evening packed with them that anger is not — for all Sheen’s fury — what one takes away from this production of “Look Back.” As Jimmy and Alison cradle one another at the final curtain, their bodies almost dwarfed by Robert Jones’ sloping (and first-rate) set, one is shocked to discover two very lost and frightened children at the center of the play in which the English theater grew up.