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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 19th October 2002

The Breath of Life / A Number / A Streetcar Named Desire

The Spectator - 19th October 2002

I wasn't surprised to learn that The Breath of Life has broken all records for advance ticket sales. Before it even opened, apparently, it had already taken £2 million at the box office. The pairing of Britain's two most distinguished actresses in a new work by one of our best playwrights is indeed a mouth-watering prospect. How disappointing, then, that The Breath of Life turns out to be dead on arrival. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith do their best to inject the material with some dramatic adrenalin, but David Hare has delivered a lifeless corpse of a play.

Judi Dench plays a successful novelist who, in the course of researching her memoirs, takes a trip to the Isle of White to visit her ex-husband's mistress, a museum curator played by Maggie Smith. Both women have been abandoned by the man in question, a leftwing barrister who's run off with an American woman, but it doesn't take much to bring the old resentments to the surface and the play works best when these two formidable old Dames are charging at each other like a couple of knights. Unfortunately, their lifelong devotion to this man, who's described as having a paunch and thinning hair, is never adequately explained and I couldn't help thinking that, at some semi-conscious level, he's a proxy for David Hare. In this light, The Breath of Life is a play aimed at Hare's ex-lovers in which the patronising old booby seems to be saying: "Why have you wasted your lives obsessing about me when you could have been doing something so much more worthwhile? Really, I'm very flattered, but I'm just not worth it."

The problem with The Breath of Life is that it's not clear what it's about, beyond the sordid domestic arrangements of this upper-middle class trio. It has all the familiar hallmarks of a David Hare play--the left-wing intellectuals who've lost their faith, the sardonic anti-Americanism, the disenchantment with modernity--without ever focusing on anything in particular. Hare is a writer who needs a big, meaty subject to get his teeth into, whether it's the Arab-Israeli conflict or the British judiciary, and without one he seems lost. As a journalist, I've always admired his skills as a reporter, but in the absence of anything tangible to report on he seems incapable of marshalling his thoughts. The Breath of Life is a baggy, hotchpotch of a play. It's an example of what can happen if a playwright who has a natural curiosity about the world decides to write a play without leaving his study.

Still, The Breath of Life is a major work compared to A Number, the new play by Carol Churchill. Churchill suffers from the opposite problem to David Hare: she has a subject but no play. A Number is about cloning and, in particular, the problems it raises when it comes to personal identity. However, rather than construct a play around this theme, Churchill has simply jotted down a few thoughts and then put these thoughts into the mouths of two characters. The fact that these characters are played by Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, two exceptionally gifted actors, just serves to point up the thinness of the material. At under 60 minutes, A Number doesn't even resemble a play. Rather, it's a series of notes and sketches that are the kind of thing a playwright puts down on paper before embarking on the hard slog of actually producing a play. The artistic director of the Royal Court should have had the courage to send Carol Churchill away and tell her not to come back until she had a finished piece of work.

My colleagues have concluded that the production of A Streetcar Named Desire that has just opened at the National doesn't work because Glen Close is too commanding an actress to play a pathetic character like Blanche Dubois. I don't agree and I suspect that the real reason Glen Close has been given such a hard time by the critics is because they've grown tired of all these Hollywood stars on the West End stage. She's paying the price for the less than brilliant performances of Kyle MacLachlan, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Summer Phoenix and Madonna, to name but a few.

This production of A Streetcar Named Desire may not be one for the ages, but it's a solid piece of entertainment nevertheless. Trevor Nunn has directed it like one of his musicals, with a spectacular, revolving set, a sexy, muscular cast and a jazz band in the wings. If you fancy a good night out, it knocks spots off almost anything else in London at the moment.

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