The Company of Players (CoPs) - Hertford


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Season: 2002-2003
29th November – 7th December 2002 at 8pm Terra Nova
By  Ted Tally
Directed by Graham Kilner

This dramatisation of the final journey of Captain Robert Falcon Scott which blends historical fact and brilliantly devised fantasy scenes shows us what makes a man willing to suffer and even die for an ideal. In exploring the devotion between Scott and his men; the tender ambivalence between Scott and his wife, Kathleen; the soaring hope of the expedition to The Pole and the agony of its tragic end, this complex, engrossing, and beautifully written play is itself a journey to the source of heroism and honour.


I’m not aware of any other stage play by Ted Tally, but I’m told he has written a lot for the screen and Terra Nova certainly doesn’t look like the work of a novice. He takes the familiar story of Captain Scott’s last journey to the South pole and inter-cuts it with scenes from before and after the event, some real, some imagined. The figure of Scott’s Norwegian rival Amundsen is present throughout, arguing with Scott and providing a commentary and counterpoint to the action. In recent years Scott, along with many another heroic figure from our past, has been thoroughly re-assessed, and if there is anyone left who still holds the old hero-worshipping view of him, they would have found it hard to maintain after seeing this production.

It is a thought-provoking piece that sets many challenges to director, designer and actors, and it’s a great tribute to Graham Kilner and his team that most of the audience probably left the theatre completely unaware of the difficulties it poses in performance. The production looked superb, we saw an impressive display of ensemble acting, and it was at times very moving. Any negative comments I make must be seen within that context.

The set design was excellent, and rightly relied for its effect on simplicity and the merest indication of the polar wilderness. I thought the director was wise to eschew the use of the historic slides used in the original professional production, which I doubt would have added anything and might well have proved a distraction. Everything worked extremely well and unfussily, from the pitching and striking of the tent to the placing of the Norwegian flag. It somehow contrived to make the CoPs stage look vast, an achievement indeed. The overall effect was much enhanced by a good use of lighting on the cyclorama, suggesting the aurora australis, and by excellent atmospheric sound.

The polar outfits of the explorers were superb, and there was a nice contrast with Amundsen’s fur jacket – though I was a little less convinced by that than by the other costumes. Kathleen’s varied wardrobe was first class, both authentic and restrainedly sexy. The only nits I’d pick with the look of the production would be the sledge, which didn’t seem up to the job, and certainly weighed less than a thousand pounds; and the theodolite, a brave impressionistic attempt that didn’t really survive the close scrutiny that all props get in your intimate space. As the author rightly suggests in his production notes, when you have an abstract impressionistic set the hand props need to be grittily realistic. In this connection I was a bit bothered by Wilson’s pristine cigar, which looked as though it had been bought that very morning in a Hertford newsagents. Would it really have been wrapped in cellophane, which wasn’t invented until 1908? I thought incidentally that Barry Lee could have made a bit more of the business of producing it, perhaps unwrapping it from a ragged bundle fished out of the side of his boot. But you might conclude that I’m casting around for things to find fault with, and you might be right.

We saw an utterly believable recreation of the intricate network of relationships between the explorers. This was a tightly knit group of men who supported one another but who were also strongly aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The class differences between Evans and the rest were nicely highlighted, as was the subtle barrier between them and Scott. Good ensemble acting, which is what this was, tends to conceal the excellence of individual performances. It’s perhaps a bit unfair to single anyone out for special mention, but I was particularly impressed by Andy Howell as Oates, who came across as a more interesting character than the conventional heroic stereotype we were brought up on. The one weak element in their collective contribution was the admittedly very difficult scene in which Evans dies, when everyone displayed an awkward hesitancy in grabbing hold of him, even after he had dropped the knife. That was incidentally another example of an inadequate hand prop: he should have been brandishing the kind of knife you’d gut a seal with, not the rather inoffensive weapon he actually had. The death itself is in my opinion virtually unplayable as written, and I’d have been tempted to cheat and have him die obscured from view by the others crowding around him.

The character of Amundsen is like the chorus in Greek tragedy: commentator and interpreter of the action, and central to the audience’s understanding of all that is unsaid by the other characters. He’s the master of ceremonies who drives everything forward, and the part calls for a versatile actor with real stage presence. Andy Kirtley rose powerfully to the challenge, with a most authentic Norwegian accent, and the right kind of half cynical attitude to the unfolding events. The only thing that didn’t quite work in his performance – and this applies equally to Chris Janes as Scott – was their big dialogue at the beginning of the play. This is admittedly a difficult scene, one of the challenges I referred to at the start. It reminds me of those long arguments that Shaw was so fond of, and it’s vital to the significance of the play. As with much in Shaw, it’s an extremely artificial discourse, and the actors’ aim must be to hide that fact without losing the power of the argument. They have to inject the semblance of naturalism by interspersing the dialogue with the hesitations, fumbles and half-interjections of natural speech, and by showing the thought forming in the character’s mind before it is uttered. In short, they have to make the arguments their own. What we got was a discourse that was fluently and expressively spoken, but remained the memorised words of someone else.

Elsewhere, Chris Janes successfully caught Scott’s curious mixture of arrogance and vulnerability, and his odd detachment both from the ordinary world and, in the last analysis, from the men under his command. His awkward courtship of Kathleen was well acted, and oddly moving. Chris successfully conveyed the impression of a decent and courageous man whose imagination, unlike Amundsens’s, was imprisoned by an unquestioning submission to the imperatives and taboos of English gentlemanly behaviour. A prime example of the class of men who a few years later led millions to their deaths in the Flanders mud.

As Kathleen, Loretta Freeman seemed at first to be experiencing some of the same difficulty with the rather artificial writing that Chris and Andy had with their opening scene, but she carried off the courtship scene very well. Her speech near the end, when she describes hearing of Scott’s death, was beautifully done; simple, sincere, and moving.

The last scene of all, in which the dying Scott is tormented by repeated phrases from the rest of the characters, didn’t quite work, and I’m not sure exactly why. It could have been something wrong with the lighting: too dim on Scott, too bright on the others. Scott’s positioning also didn’t help. I think it might have worked better had the tormentors gradually withdrawn into shadow, with the lights steadily narrowing down onto Scott himself. Whatever the cause, we lost some of the impact of Scott’s last words.

To sum up, this was a cleverly designed and well-acted production – though not without flaws – of a most interesting play. Congratulations to all concerned, and thanks for a most enjoyable evening’s theatre.

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