An unpolished "Southwark Fair"

My Saturday evening theatregoing was not a total success, but it did lend a sort of organic unity to the day as a whole. After my wanderings round the Barbican, I headed south. Traveling was no simple matter this weekend, since about half of central London's Underground was down for scheduled track maintenance, 600,000 people were in town for EuroPride, the heat wave continued (even intensified), and England lost that very day in the World Cup.

At any rate, I returned to the National Theatre, this time to the tiny Cottesloe, to see "Southwark Fair," by Samuel Adamson. I had seen Adamson's adaptation of "Pillars of the Community" over the winter, and had qualifiedly enjoyed it (that play is marred by its final act, which is a precipitous charge through a series of false endings and near tragedies). This, on the other hand, was structurally ambitious (it follows several groups of people through the same day twice, each time from a different point of view), but the development of this structure is half-baked and the pacing of the scenes is off-kilter. The complex premise seems gimmicky rather than having that peculiar combination of inevitability and revelation that films like "Memento" and plays like Stoppard's time-benders possess. The script certainly needed a few more drafts and a few new actors - the principals are strong, but the peripheral characters are often surprisingly slapsticky. At one time or another, everyone seems to be pushing at the characters too too hard.

I saw the author before the show, in an odd turn, and this reminded me of a biographical connection that is worth noting: Adamson once taught at the well-worn nemesis of my beloved alma mater. Drawing on his experience in the States, Adamson has several of his characters visiting or returning to London from their home in Durham, North Carolina. It felt a bit like a nostalgic ambush to encounter NC (my home for several years) at this unexpected point in my travels.

The characters that populate the play are indeed an international gathering, featuring an Australian, a Canadian, and an American as well as Brits. I have to wonder what temptation continually leads British playwrights and directors into this folly of foreignness. I have no authoritative way of judging how accurate the details of American attempts on British accents are, but with very few exceptions (I'm looking at you, Hugh Laurie) British actors' attempts at American and Canadian accents are excruciating (Never, coincidentally, worse than when they attempt Arthur Miller, whose work settles out into "Aw shucks" sentimentality in the process). The more dialect coaching is done, the more the character is lost beneath a series of garish, cartoonish voice-masks. The poor actor who plays a Canadian in "Southwark Fair" is caught in this quicksand of accent, unable to make any line sound as if it were spoken by an actual human being.

If the author's ties to that iniquitous seat of Blue Devilry in Durham created a sort of symmetry in my summer travels (I have just returned from a lovely wedding in western NC), this play managed to surprise me with ties to all my Saturday activities. The driving point behind the plot of "Southwark Fair" was a possibly pedophiliac fumble backstage at a student performance of none other than "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play was filled with a sort of weary post-Puckishness (and the inevitable puns about "being a great Puck") that was totally at odds with the endless exuberance of the matinee performance. The final puzzle piece dropped into place when the Clytemnestra of the play avenges herself on her inane, philandering husband by flinging all his belongings into the River. Ah, I thought, ... ritual offerings.