THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, AT THE ARTS THEATRE
Regret. Artists love to draw on that sorest of human emotions. Frank Sinatra had a few regrets in doing it his way, Edith Piaf famously had none, but from Chekhov to Arthur Miller, regret is a constant theme for authors and playwrights. For the British Nobel prizewinner Kazuo Ishiguro, the subject lies at the heart of his celebrated novel powerfully dramatised and boldly presented at the Arts Theatre.
The setting is a large country house quintessentially English, we are in Downton Abbey/Brideshead territory of upper crust nabobs waited on by deferential below-stair drudges. Chief among them is Stevens, the archetypal butler who makes Jeeves look like a lazy slacker. He is devoted to his employer, Lord Darlington, and a slave of duty. His dutiful selflessness has been drummed into stiff-backed Stevens by his aged father, also employed by his lordship though now losing it through decades of tray carrying and doorknob polishing. Like father like son, duty comes before self. Regrets? You bet.
It is 1938, appeasement is in the rarefied air and Darlington is hosting a party of powerful politicos bent on preventing war with Hitler. Is this loyalty or treachery? Stevens knows about loyalty – to his noble boss (but not to his own humanity). The emotional heart of this great story lies in the painfully detached relationship between the seemingly emotionless Stevens (we never learn his first name) and the housekeeper Kenton. In a flashback we see their first encounter and there is a palpable frisson between her youthful coquettishness and his stuff upper body. Is this the beginning of a romantic relationship or will subservience as servants come first? It is a question constantly examined.
Though I have a few caveats about stage direction, the cast of this adaptation were universally quite wonderful. Stephen Boxer was outstanding as the buttoned-up butler. It was one of the performances of the year – subtle, exquisitely crafted and beautifully nuanced. Niamh Cusack was also nigh on perfection as the spurned housekeeper. There was a moment towards the conclusion of the play, when Stevens and Kenton meet in older age and through a welter of English reserve and cucumber sandwiches reveal bitter sadness beneath the cheery exterior. Keep calm and carry on sinking. It was a master class in acting with Boxer in particular expressing a thousand emotions through the merest twitch of an eyebrow. Unacknowledged pain. Reader I cried.
If I have one slight doubt about the production it was in the handling of rapid time shifts and lightening-quick character doubling. In the first half, it was a bit too confusing with both time and persona changing on a beat. I loved Miles Richardson as the tweedy lord one second and genial country doctor the next; so too Stephen Critchlow who one minute was pub philosopher in post war Wessex and at a stroke an arrogant MP and arch appeaser. All this was very clever but lighting did little to make the many transitions clear.
These caveats did little to puncture the enjoyment of this very fine production. It was gripping and utterly engaging, a tribute to Ishiguro’s masterpiece. You won’t regret seeing it.