I went to see this production with low expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Entertainer is quite possibly the most overhyped play in modern theatre. While a comparable play of genuine originality and power like Trevor Griffiths’ The Comedians is rarely performed, this shallow threnody for the British Empire is regularly revived and regularly discussed in academia as one of the great plays.
Why? In part because of its association with that most grand of British knights of the theatre Laurence Olivier, who originally commissioned it and played its central character Archie Rice. But more pertinently The Entertainer has a reputation as an important political play, one that discusses The State of the Nation, no less.
It was written by John Osborne in 1957 at the height of his fame as theatre’s Angry Young Man (a phrase actually coined by Osborne’s press officer). This was indeed a time when new and angry voices were emerging in British theatre and literature — voices like Alan Sillitoe and Arnold Wesker.
But Osborne’s background wasn’t working in a cycle factory like Sillitoe: he was the usual upper middle class public school roué that clogs up British theatre then and now.
Osborne’s one good idea in The Entertainer was to set his play in the clapped-out world of British music hall. Music hall had once been a vibrant and often transgressive part of working class culture. By 1957 it was dead on its feet, soon to be closed down as the working class acquired TV sets.
Fanboys of the play claim that Osborne uses the wormeaten grandeur of the music hall as an allegory for the collapse of the British Empire and the jingoism it encouraged.
In 1956 the British Empire had been dealt its most humiliating defeat with the Suez debacle when US imperialism forced Britain to call off its illegal invasion of Egypt. To sharpen this political metaphor, The Entertainer is set in 1956 and
Rice’s squaddie son is held captive and then killed by the Egyptians.
This collapse of the empire is (kind of) debated through two distinct set-ups. Firstly there is the conventional “he said, she said” family dialogue over the Rice kitchen table so beloved of British rep. But in what was seen as a coup de theatre in 1957, political issues also animate the comedy routine that Rice delivers straight to the audience.
On one side of this faux “debate” are Archie’s children who are what passed for lefties in Osborne world. Frank has refused national service as a conscientious objector, while Jean has joined the huge demonstrations against the Suez invasion (although she’s not sure why).
On the other side is Archie and his dying father Billy who are straight-down-the-line right wing bigots rhapsodising imperialism and its racial “order”.
In between is Archie’s betrayed and neglected wife Phoebe representing the voice of gin-soaked bitterness.
Osborne gives none of the supporting characters any more than two dimensions because his play is all about Archie Rice (and to a lesser extent Billy). Archie is, after all, The Entertainer. Yet by any decent standards Archie Rice is a monster. He is like the love child of Katie Hopkins and Jim Davidson, if your mind can stretch to that degree of douchebagness.
He is viciously selfish — as he says in his act, “Number one is the only number for me”. He is riddled with dark and twisted prejudice — homophobic, racist and misogynistic. He is even an early adopter of anti-Polish xenophobia. He has humiliated his wife with a series of predatory affairs, he has neglected his family, and despite his flag-waving patriotism he hasn’t paid his taxes for 20 years.
What’s more Rice is also a fourth-rate comedian — today he would be hooked after 30 seconds at a pub open mic night.
Played in his full useless scumbaggery (as Max Wall apparently did in 1971) The Entertainer can indeed say something (although not much) about The State of the Nation. If Archie is played as a piece of shit, his opinions stink out the theatre.
I’ve only seen the film of the Olivier production, but there was enough self-hatred in Olivier’s complex personality for him to play Rice as loathsome. But in today’s subtlety-free Sir Kenneth Branagh Theatre production that quality is a no-go.
Sir Kenneth Branagh is a thespian with a capital F, with an ego that is visible from the International Space Station. And Sir Kenneth Branagh ain’t gonna play no shitty loser.
So Branagh’s Archie is often pathetic, sometimes insensitive, occasionally a tad spiteful. But he is also always the alpha male preening around and dominating the whole stage. This imbalance becomes a full capsize because in this production the parts of Frank and Jean are played with such low wattage. It is Archie Rice whose pernicious bigotry resonates round the theatre unchallenged.
In any production this is a peevish and absurdly over-rated play. In this ego-soiled production it becomes plain UKIP-nasty. On opening night Nigel Farage was busy speaking with his new BFF Donald Trump, but I would suggest that Farump (as we must surely now call them) should order tickets pronto. They will feel right at home with this production.
Personally I’ve had more fun at the dentist.