There was hardly a critic or commentator more sensitized to acting than the late Kenneth Tynan, which makes it doubly poignant that he isn’t around to see Corin Redgrave’s smart and subtle appropriation of the wordsmith in the new Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Tynan.”
It’s not that Redgrave particularly resembles Tynan, which he doesn’t, being far fuller of face and frame than the one-time scribe for the Observer and, later, the New Yorker. But in his sly wit and gentle, increasingly pervasive melancholia, Redgrave uncannily captures both the naughtiness of his subject — a man who seems to have spent much of his spare time looking for a spanking partner — and something deeply, ineffably sad, too: a reckoning with destiny in which Tynan, for all his literary celebrity, remained oddly damned.
Richard Nelson’s finely judged production premiered last fall in Stratford and has arrived at London’s Arts Theater as a commercial venture with at least one eye set on New York. And why not, since American theater buffs will be just as wise as British ones to tales of “Larry” and “Johnny” (as in Olivier and Gielgud), not to mention an unexpectedly hilarious anecdote about Christopher Plummer’s diva-ish behavior during a long-ago “Coriolanus.” (Who knew a “Coriolanus” joke could bring down the house?)
But the tone of “Tynan” grows progressively more bleak across its 90 minutes, once dramatist Nelson (working with Colin Chambers) moves away from providing Redgrave with Alan Bennett impersonations — not quite as good as the Gielgud ones — and toward Tynan’s own reckoning with a mortality that, as here described, must have come as something of a relief. (Born in Birmingham, Tynan was only 53 when he died in Santa Monica, Calif., a self-described “climatic emigre” in search of better weather.)
The source material of “Tynan” is his diaries, as edited by John Lahr, which means we don’t get nearly enough of his criticism that nowadays shines like an unsullied beacon in a bruised profession. (Tynan on the famous Peter Brook “King Lear” in 1962: “This production brings me closer to Lear than I have ever been; from now on, I not only know him but can place him in his harsh and unforgiving world.”)
And yet, the revelation here is how harsh and unforgiving was Tynan’s own world of, in no particular order, mistresses, cross-dressing, bankruptcy and emphysema. His proposed New Yorker salary ($44,000 a year for six stories) sounds great until we hear the accompanying notes of quiet sorrow — from a man at odds with his own authorship, the death of his mother and even his anatomy.
Redgrave rides out the show in a psychedelic shirt (Tynan’s daughter, Tracy, who is responsible for the clothes, presumably should know the look required), never moving from a chair center-stage, his vaguely ethereal air suggesting the “lilac-trousered Oxford trendy,” as John Osborne singularly once described Tynan onstage.
Less imposing and airier than usual, Redgrave may well have brought to this assignment some residual affect from his recent RSC stand as Lear. There’s a schoolboy’s glee, to be sure, in accounts of Tynan ingesting vodka into the body anally, as there is in a passion for caning that marked Tynan out as British to the end. But the grief, as communicated to us, was as unique to this epigrammatic man of letters as was his literary acumen.
The play, in the sort of paradox that might have made Tynan smile, makes a strong case for the ongoing power of theater but won’t leave you wanting to be a theater critic.