LONDON—According to those who knew her, the late play agent Peggy Ramsay was substantially different from the Peggy Ramsay portrayed in Alan Plater’s comedy-drama Peggy for You (the Hampstead). Evidently, she was noticeably more solicitous of the dramatists she represented (Joe Orton, Christopher Hampton) and much crueler to people she disliked than Plater, a longtime client and partisan, shows her to be. Furthermore, she was more imposing physically than slight-though-padded actress Maureen Lipman. Ramsay acquaintances do, though, give Lipman points for nailing her heavy walk and accurately flashing her bum as she goes about a day in the life—a day in which the storied 10-percenter takes on a new author, learns about the suicide of another, and is told by a third that he’s quitting her vaunted stable.
Ramsay isn’t the only real person currently showing up in and around the West End. An inordinate number have all but turned local theaters into a walking, talking Madame Tussaud’s. Few of these impersonations, however, are getting the thumbs-up from friends and acquaintances. For instance, in Alan Bennett’s biographical rumination The Lady in the Van (the Queen’s), the always deft playwright has thrust himself into the action as two characters—a writing Bennett and a day-to-day Bennett—contending with Miss Shepherd, the crazy lady who squatted in the playwright’s driveway for 15 years. Bennett cronies agree that the two Bennetts seem about right, but report that Shepherd was not nearly so over-the-top as Maggie Smith saucily exhibits her.
The question raised by the current outcropping, then, becomes: How important is it for playwrights limning nonfictional figures to get it right? Answer: not very. Accuracy is the stuff of biographies; plays—as differentiated from docudramas—generally have more in common with gossip columns, where it’s long been understood, if not condoned, that truth matters less than truthful lies.
Viewed from this perspective, Peggy for You is the trenchant character study of a woman who believes in her literary mission and goes about accomplishing it like a tornado demolishing a small town. Told she’s impossible, Ramsay replies, “Who wants to be possible?” She stops to consider the advisability of her brusqueness not when a playwright takes his life (evidently the model is David Mercer), but when a longtime client walks out on her with the intention of thriving elsewhere.
In The Lady in the Van, Bennett confronts the problem of verisimilitude squarely by acknowledging that writers are often tempted to fiddle around with reality to make it spicier. Though his Miss Shepherd is a funny and disturbing stage creation and Bennett has supplied her with fantastical monologues she may never have actually spoken or even thought, the play is not about her, but about him, about writers’ dilemmas. The pivotal moment comes when the practical Bennett says to the elaborating Bennett, “You’re contemptible.” With its handful of two-dimensional secondary characters, The Lady in the Van isn’t the dramatist’s best play, but it is his most self-revealing.
** Presumably, Edna O’Brien’s Our Father (the Almeida) is about her father, a man tyrannizing his family as they gather for a birthday celebration. Since the dramatis personae include three sisters (among them a fiery, successful writer), a brother with a materialistic wife, and a gun pulled ineffectively, O’Brien means her play to be Chekhovian. But although the fearsome father is written with poisoned ink, too little is known about the others for the narrative to gather momentum—O’Brien lacks Chekhov’s invention.
In Noël Coward’s Song at Twilight (original title: A Song at Twilight), Corin Redgrave gives such a vital performance as novelist-with-a-secret Hugo Latymer that the character’s roots seem to reach the earth’s molten core. Latymer, who’s being blackmailed by a former wife (Vanessa Redgrave) with a pack of sexually compromising letters, is so blatantly modeled on William Somerset Maugham that a painting resembling Graham Sutherland’s Maugham portrait sits on the Gielgud Theatre’s stage. What makes the revival strong is the gravitas that Corin Redgrave lends to Coward’s commentary. A playwright frequently content to make the glib seem profound, Coward plumbs deeper in his depiction of a man for whom he clearly had both respect and disdain. And it’s worth considering that the painting may be there as smoke screen: In portraying a man unable to confront his homosexuality with complete honesty, Coward was arguably writing about himself as well.
It often seems that concern for factual precision in plays lessens in direct proportion to a play’s time frame—Shakespeare’s histories lose nothing from their questionable accuracy. Perhaps the fascinating information Nick Stafford dispenses in Battle Royal, a play about the unhappy arranged marriage between George IV and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, is correct. But given the plodding and unilluminating piece he’s concocted, so what? Presented at the Royal National Theatre—perhaps because of the play’s similarity to the Prince Charles-Lady Di fiasco—Battle Royal is hobbled by a gratingly self-centered George IV (the usually impeccable Simon Russell Beale) and a tiresomely willful Caroline (the usually riveting Zoë Wanamaker), not to mention a numbingly obtuse divorce trial. What really sinks the exercise is that the two uninviting royal personages never get to do what the audience longs for them to do—rub elbows and personalities like sticks setting off sparks.
It’s probably pure chance that Simon McBurney’s Mnemonic (Riverside Studios), about the 5000-year-old ice man found on the Italian-Austrian border, is the most theatrical piece on view. The work—a Theatre de Complicite production that McBurney directs and in which he edgily performs—ingeniously examines memory and connection through three linked stories. Two of them are present-day—a man called Virgil attempts to locate his missing girlfriend while she attempts to locate her missingfather—and one is purely conjectural history: that collection of neolithic bones. When McBurney’s skilled company turns a broken chair into a long-dead Iceman walking, the power that drama has to make manifest the souls of the once or currently living is revealed. “It’s a story,” someone says, “and I suppose we all need stories.” Right, and it doesn’t matter if they’re absolutely true. What’s more important—what good theater demonstrates—is that they seem to be emotionally true.