What do The Sound of Music and Michael Frayn’s new play, Afterlife, have in common? – They both are set in Leopoldskron, a prince-archbishop’s Baroque palace in Salzburg. Also, both stories feature 1930s Austrian theatrical luminaries fleeing Nazi oppression. Alas, Afterlife doesn’t have Julie Andrews, cute singing kiddies togged up in curtains, or even a lonely goatherd.
Leopoldskron was owned by the legendary theatrical impresario and founder of the Salzburg Festival, Max Reinhardt. His signature production was a revival of the Medieval morality play Everyman. Frayn cleverly conjoins the play with the life, creating a sort of grown-up metaphysical version of Noises Off. The best bits are when the 1930s characters suddenly start speaking in a pastiche of morality verse, or when Max (Roger Allam, excellent) addresses the audience directly or directs the ‘real’ action. I wish this had been explored more, because the notorious weaknesses of the two genres, their relentless predictablity – the biographical and the morality – just build on each other and overwhelm Frayn’s wit.
The relentless rhyming rhythm of the morality verse becomes tiresome quickly, and the biography loops from A, and then to B, and then years pass, and then to C, and then years pass and pass. Unfortunately, the character most responsible for explaining years passing, Gusti Adler, is played by Selina Griffiths in a strident one-note sort of way, which certainly gives the impression of years passing. Otherwise, one can’t fault the acting. David Burke as the Archbishop is especially enjoyable. One suspects that this was Frayn’s favourite character to write.
I wonder to what extent the set lets down Frayn’s play. Wonderfully, we can compare and contrast with Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s current London production of The Sound of Music, whose set also references Leopoldskron. I’ve never seen the actual building, but based on these two sets it must have a trio (at least) of very large arched French windows opening onto a terrace. Lloyd Webber’s version, as I recall, is a pastelly rococo dream, set on a revolving stage so the audience gets varying views of it. The National Theatre’s is monolithically hard-core h e a v y Baroque – relentlessly frontal, symmetrical and drearily putty coloured. Flatly lit, mostly. It has very few tricks up its sleeve – it just trundles ponderously backwards and forwards, up and down. It emphasizes all the text’s structural weaknesses.
Max all too frequently protests his adoration of his house. To this viewer, not credibly on this set. And call me a flint-hearted cynic, but surely – on the scale of Nazi atrocities, fleeing Austria for Los Angeles and then New York with one’s family, friends, staff and luggage intact can hardly register. Even the Von Trapp family suffered more. They had to climb a mountain. Singing.
Yes, he lost his house. But he spent the whole play verging on defaulting on his mortgage through his radical financial fecklessness, so realistically, how sorry can one expect an audience to be?
But my biggest bugbear was the repetition of the first words of Everyman again and again and again, emphasized by their own theme music played on trumpets. By the end I was digging my fingernails into my seat and clenching my jaw to avoid screaming.
Thank goodness for gin and tonics in the NT bar. Thank God for gin and tonic.