Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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Firebrand lacks fervour

By Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, 9 October 2001

John Osborne will always have his place in the history books. But has his dramatic excellence ever matched his historical importance? His Look Back in Anger (1956) is seen as the turning-point in modern British drama, and often its importance has been inflated beyond that of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and that of the Berliner Ensemble's first British season of Brecht plays in 1956. (The inflation was started by Kenneth Tynan.) I'm among those who admire Look Back in Anger — but for its old-fashioned merits of construction, not for any enduring radical virtues.

And does Osborne have much place in repertory today? Revivals of plays of his crop up from time to time — The Entertainer, A Patriot for Me, Inadmissible Evidence — but they never amount even to talk of an "Osborne revival", whereas one hears serious talk of a "Rattigan revival", and the "Coward revival" is virtually a non-stop industry. Osborne today amounts to more than some other "angry young men" who followed in his wake (such as Arnold Wesker) but to a great deal less than others (such as Harold Pinter). I'm glad that the National Theatre has revived Osborne's Luther — a play I only otherwise knew from a 1983 BBC Radio production — and I hope that our leading theatre companies keep reviving various Osborne plays. I like learning my theatre history in the live theatre. But that's how Osborne feels: history.

Certainly he was no Johnny-one-note playwright. The modern-dress bile that stamped Look Back in Anger belongs to one genre; the satirical vision of a period Britain in decline in The Entertainer (1957) to another; and Luther (1961) to a genre quite different again. Within the long tradition of dramas that treat major historical figures, Luther belongs to the section that dramatises historical crises of faith and liberty. It looks back to Schiller (Don Carlos, The Maid of Orleans, William Tell) and forward to Peter Shaffer (The Royal Hunt of the Sun). At some level it is a self-examination on Osborne's part: the Martin Luther of modern British drama — the cleanser of its Augean stables, the creator of a new constituency, the fashioner of a new reformation style — was dramatising Luther himself, the decadence against which he fought, the plain-speaking middle-class background from which he came, the brilliance and the hubris that characterised his struggle.

I find it admirable but slow, diffuse, unsubtle. Its greatest dramatic strokes occur too infrequently, and its individual lines don't coruscate. It's possible that it would work better if played in an intimate theatre, stripped down to raw essence. In the Olivier Theatre, Peter Gill's revival makes it seem cumbersome, overblown. And Rufus Sewell — an actor so gifted in terms of extraordinary looks and personal intensity — tackles a title role for which he doesn't yet have the complex technique or artistry. He shows us Luther's spiritual torture, his feverish temperament, his physical cramps, but he also follows Osborne in letting those things become repetitious. (Luther's bowels become a particular bore.) The most magisterial performances are given by Malcolm Sinclair as Cardinal Cejetan and Andrew Woodall as the Knight. Richard Griffiths is enjoyable as Johann Tetzel, and Timothy West amiable as the vicar-general von Staupitz. Geoffrey Hutchings turns Luther's father Hans into a bullying deadweight. The whole production makes Osborne seem serious and ponderous.


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