- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Sir Kenneth Branagh steps backward onto the darkened stage, dressed in simple pants and a white undershirt, the lighting catching the back of his head and the mane of his natively blond hair — now almost certainly dyed. Mr. Branagh’s character, Archie Rice, taps his feet, kicking slightly; his ankles jingle in time to an internal rhythm of frustrated life. The cracks of his footwear increase in speed, his entertainer’s tap shoes soon joined by a chorus of four showgirls who, wordlessly, dance with him.

Mr. Branagh’s visage remains unseen, his back to the audience as his taps his sad, lonely routine while the chorus girls smile and carouse about him. They disperse as Mr. Branagh ambles farther upstage. He peers back sidelong, so that the audience catches but a glimmer of his left profile as he disappears into the wings.

Thus begins “The Entertainer,” staged at Mr. Branagh’s own Garrick Theatre on London’s West End through Nov. 12. It is an extraordinary curtain-raiser, and in its wordless choreography by director Rob Ashford, we are told all we really need know about Archie: His time upon the stage has come and gone; he is now more fretting than strutting, awaiting to walk off into the grand unknown to be heard no more — with but a final glance back at the ruins of his wake.

Were that this were the entirety of the narrative. Alas, the show will continue on for more than two-plus hours, and never again will it even middlingly approach the grandiosity of this sublime opening scene.

The Garrick production uses as its source material the play by John Osborne, written in the 1950s. In Osbourne’s writing, Archie is indeed a swiftly fading performer — far more vaudevillian than Shakespearean — whose pomp upon the dais is far outweighed by the mess of his domestic life.

Osborne wrote and set the play in post-war Britain, when the shadow of fading empire, combined with the frail psyche of an island in both physical and fiscal ruins after the war against the Nazis, had cast its pall over the collective soul of what it meant to be English in then second half of the 20th century.

It’s a curious yet somehow apropos setting for Mr. Branagh, now 55, and far removed from his wunderkind days of his film version of “Henry V” and various other realizations of Shakespeare’s leads on stage in England and abroad. He has never been unbusy, by Hollywood standards anyway, but it is telling that his most high-profile paychecks of the past decade came not from acting but rather for directing the Marvel Comics Universe flick “Thor” as well as the reboot of the CIA spy franchise “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” in which Mr. Branagh cast himself as a particularly nasty Russian.

It is also unavoidably noticeable that Archie Rice was famously played by Sir Laurence Olivier, for whom Osborne first wrote the role. Mr. Branagh must be given credit for taking on a role that is undeniably suited to his age, and his portrayal of Archie thankfully bears none of the burden of memory of Olivier’s earlier portrayal.

The problem with this new iteration of “The Entertainer,” however, is not Mr. Branagh’s ambition, but rather — and ultimately — the source material. As written by Osborne, Archie’s forays onto the stage seem to exist solely for him as a means to escape his troubled home. It is only on the stage where both he and the show come alive; the rest of the story becomes seriously bogged down in scenes of domesticity with Archie’s family that tragically fall flat.

This is through absolutely no fault of the able cast, which is led mostly in the scenes of Archie’s absence by Gawn Grainger as Archie’s dad, Billy, himself a former stage hound. Early scenes establish that there is a family, however, how they are a family is often confusing. For in addition to Billy, there is a middle-age woman named Phoebe (Greta Scacchi, whom you may remember as Harrison Ford’s mistress in “Presumed Innocent”), but only gradually do we come to understand that she is in fact Archie’s missus and not his mother. (For this I fault the writer, not the adaptation.)

Miss Scacchi does her part justice, making her Phoebe clearly weary of a lifetime of Archie’s shenanigans yet still fadingly optimistic, but several times she veered into overacting. She was best in moments of quiet, her eyes and face betraying the immense hurt and disappointment of being married to this rather insufferable man.

There are also two adult children in the homestead, Jean (Sophie McShera), who shows up with news that her engagement may be off, and Frank (Jonah Hauer-King). If there is a failing with either Osborne’s script or with Mr. Ashford’s direction, it is that the relationships between Archie, Phoebe and his children are not suitably clear until too late in the second act. Only then is it understood that Phoebe is not Frank and Jean’s biological mother (however, there is no “revelation” of such; it is simply a fact not ably proffered), and that Archie in fact has a third son, who is off and away attending to the Suez crisis in service of the Crown.

The domestic scenes drag, often badly. Mr. Branagh’s absence is felt every time he is off stage, but thankfully, he reinvigorates the proceedings at every “cutaway” to Archie strutting the stage — which is either real and/or metaphorical — delivering his hackneyed one-liners and crooning mid-century tunes with the backup of both the chorus girls and an orchestra upstage behind him.

To this reviewer, the scenes of Mr. Branagh singing and dancing were not just when the production best came alive, but when it in fact came alive at all. The “kitchen sink” melodrama of Archie’s family never moves the viewer. Were that Osborne had written the show as a one-man monologue for Archie as the fading showman, who can bury the pain of his poor life choices in song and dance rather than us seeing him at home, where such homestead tragedy must, invariably, be spelled out. Imagining Mr. Branagh in such an undertaking, even now, several days removed from my viewing the show, gives me chills.

But instead we are given Archie at home, where he is, through his actions, never seen as anything less than an immense, intolerable bastard.

And one, sadly, without redemption. Or even self-understanding. Perhaps this is what ultimately keeps “The Entertainer” at bay. Archie is neither hero nor tragic figure, but rather a self-obsessed narcissist whose family life seems only there to punctuate the hungering for attention he so desperately needs — and, righteously, gets — when he is playing the fool. Mr. Branagh’s tragic clown lacks any semblance of introspection, and his Archie either behaves as he does due to immense hubris or, more likely, crippling manic-depression.

Thus I cannot quite recommend the play, but nor can I precisely pan it either. For when Mr. Branagh is on stage, his Northern Irish timbres combining with the gravitas he has projected on stage and screen for decades, one’s eyes cannot help but be drawn. At the same time, this is not the best vehicle for him.

Nor, I believe, is “The Entertainer” correct for our times either. British anxiety over the “loss” of its empire has been a staple of its national identity for a century (or more), but it is fatal to have not updated the show to the present. The memory of the Suez crisis lives in the minds of few now living, with far more dastardly world events threatening democracy and Western values now than in the 1950s. In short, bringing Archie into the 21st century might have made his imminent self-destruction — and the crumbling of his country’s worldwide empire — more immediate a concern.

The final question then, is twofold: Who, precisely, is “The Entertainer” for; and what is its ultimate message? If the playwright Osborne had an inkling, it is lost to history. If Mr. Branagh knows, I fear he is not sharing it well enough with his audience, as was evidenced at the final preview showing Friday evening, in which those seated in the Garrick applauded politely, but Mr. Branagh and his cast nonetheless again raised the red curtain, unbidden, for an encore bow — more suitable a ploy for Archie than his avatar.

That Mr. Branagh possesses immense, and natural, dramatic heft is beyond dispute, and there is another play out there — or even a return to Shakespeare — through which he will yet channel his gifts. Archie Rice is not that vessel, at least, not as he is here sadly underimagined and his vassal ill used.

At the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0HH, through Nov. 12. For tickets or more information, visit BranaghTheatre.com/the-entertainer.


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