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Play of words reaches hypnotic realm

PUBLISHED: 10:46 28 February 2001 | UPDATED: 15:03 22 October 2010

In Praise of Love @ Theatre Royal, Norwich. By Charles Roberts.

In Praise of Love @ Theatre Royal, Norwich

By Charles Roberts

Every so often the text of a play, the direction, the acting, the lighting, fuse together into a seamless ribbon of pure gold.

This realisation of Terence Rattigan's final play, In Praise of Love, is just such an event, from which the playgoer emerges not only moved, but with a sense of having been privileged to be there.

This is not a play of action. It is a mosaic of words, of ideas, of philosophies, of what we think is the inherent nature of individuals. And most of all, it is a play of emotions and of love, powered by the theme – as Rattigan would recognise it when he wrote the play – of the English discomfort with the show of emotions.

Deborah Bruce honours title and theme by directing it with love, with intense sensitivity and with an almost Chekhovian feel for atmosphere, for pace which knows no hurry, and for the minutiae of human contact and interaction.

So much so that she and her peerless cast of four take the play beyond acting and theatre into that hypnotic realm where the audience has forgotten it is watching a play.

Lydia is an Estonian who went through hell during the last war. Then she met and married a British Army officer, Sebastian, and set in train for both of them an odyssey lasting till death them do part. When we meet her, the odyssey is near its close, for she is dying of a fatal disease.

Isla Blair is Lydia, realising her with an aura which is almost visual; with a beauty of soul and wonderful physical presence; and with a controlled emotion which is magical. Her final exit, floating from the room as if already beyond life, is one of those moments for a playgoer to store away in memory like a rare jewel.

Julian Glover is Sebastian, selfish, utterly self-centred, using those around him – or so we are led to believe. For when the mask slips, and Glover reveals the real man underneath, truly we are on the edge of tears.

As their American friend Mark, Michael Roberts' physical sensitivity, his controlled judgment of contained reaction and eloquent eyes, are a joy to watch. As is Blake Ritson's drawing of Lydia and Sebastian's son, Joey, still boyish at 20, trying to love an unloving father, and coming at last to the realisation – as this play makes all of us do – that love comes in many and unexpected guises. The play runs until Saturday. It should not be missed.

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