When is a play not a play? When it’s an aria, and in the case of John Osborne’s 1964 drama “Inadmissible Evidence,” a two-and-a-half-hour mad scene. An endurance test for an actor, in the wrong hands it risks being the same for an audience. But director Jamie Lloyd and, most especially, Douglas Hodge make the best possible case for this flawed fantasia. Witnessing Hodge’s blistering performance is like being unable to tear yourself away from a stand-up in mesmerizing meltdown.
As in Simon Gray’s more famous “Butley” which followed in this play’s wake seven years later, “Inadmissible Evidence” dispenses with plot in favor of presenting the worst twenty-four hours in the central character’s life, with key players paying visits to what amounts to a monologue.
From the opening, as Hodge’s middle-aged lawyer Bill Maitland is harangued in his ramshackle office by a judge (Daniel Ryan) perched atop a filing cabinet and a clerk of the court (Al Weaver) standing on a chair, it’s clear that naturalism is not on the menu.
With an extended, unearthly groan of pain from Hodge, the office proper springs to life. Much-abused secretaries move in and out of the firing line and Ryan and Weaver return as fellow members of the firm reaching the end of their tether with their irascible but needy boss, who never misses a chance to sneer at them.
Lloyd shapes proceedings by heeding Osborne’s indication that this is a dream play. We know where we are thanks to Soutra Gilmour’s terrific period-style set of a wide, paper-strewn, dingy inner office with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out towards a wall of much-abused secretaries. But the anchoring provided by her immediately recognizable setting frees Lloyd to lift Hodge’s performance to the horrifyingly surreal.
Beneath James Farncombe’s marvelously queasy light making its way through bleary office skylights, Hodge counter-intuitively scampers through the opening section with cunning comedy. He allows us to see that his character is within sight of crack-up, but pills, whiskey and bravado are seeing him through.
Sweating and bursting out of his ill-fitting three-piece suit, the only link to Hodge’s most recent stage role — his Tony-winning Albin in “La Cage aux Folles” — is his devastating timing. He changes direction of thought at warp-speed and embodies the comedian’s gift for being able to stretch time seemingly indefinitely. For much of his almost non-stop tirade he has the audience by the throat with everyone playing catch-up, because both he and the character think so thrillingly fast.
The speed of his performance (in an already trimmed text) is not virtuosic showing off but a perfect realization of the way in which Maitland is permanently on the run from himself. Whenever he stops to examine his appalling relationships with his wife, his mistress, his co-workers and clients, he risks drowning in the terrified self-loathing that fuels his every waking moment.
Maitland’s appalling views on the women in his life ought to make the play unwatchable, but Hodge is so charismatic that his attitudes appear self-lacerating. The really upsetting thing about the no-holds-bared performance is that it shows a man who knows himself frighteningly well but can do nothing about it.
Shortly before the final section, he attempts to pull himself together to help Maples (Weaver), a client arrested for illegal homosexual behavior. To Maitland’s silenced astonishment, Maples elects to plead guilty out of pride (this is three years before homosexuality was legalized in the U.K.). Weaver’s high-chinned, beautifully distilled portrayal has a poised self-knowledge that stands as a chilling rebuke to Maitland’s emotional floundering. It silences him, and perfectly sets up Maitland’s final terrifying attack on his daughter. The applause that greets Hodge’s ultimate collapse is as disquieting as it is appropriate to so epic a performance.