Fortunately, I don't have to rely on my memory (thank God --I'd be in serious difficulty if I did) of the original broadcast because I had the foresight (aka sheer dumb luck) to tape it from the PBS showing. I was living in Washington DC then and the local PBS station offered good, clear reception, so the video was better than I'd expected. A year ago, I translated all my videos to DVD and recently watched it for perhaps the sixth or seventh time.
I would be hard-pressed to voluntarily watch another version of the play, after seeing the superb performances of Richard Chamberlain and Eileen Atkins. I was only 31 at the time, and fell in love with the divine Ms Atkins and have never really gotten over it. Those eyes...
But it wasn't only the two leads: The whole cast was magnificent, with strong performances by Scott Hylands and Stephen McHattie as the two brothers, and a wonderfully doleful Tom Lacy as the chaplain. Laurie Prange is deliciously blond as the bemused Alizon and Rosemarie Murphy will live forever through her entrancing recitation of the line: I will burst my bud of calm and blossom into hysteria." Christopher Fry's language is the bones and sinews of the play, of course. The wit; the detached, almost antiseptic (and thus devastatingly understated) sketching of the evil stemming from human ignorance and greed; the inadequacy of reason against that evil; the even greater inadequacy of despair and nihilism --all of Fry's thoughts are there, although this version does take a few liberties with the text. (I was an English Major and was thus fated to read all the major British playwrights of the 20th century, perhaps because I took a course entitled Major British Playwrights of the Twentieth Century. As I remember, I received a C. In any case, I still have the text and read along with the performance.) The fleshing out of the play comes from the cast, and the sharp, careful direction of Joseph Hardy. In particular, the interplay between Chamberlain and Eileen Atkins is both compelling and appealing. One might think that Chamberlain is too "pretty" to play the part of Mendip, a hard-bitten, disillusioned veteran, but such is not the case. In fact, if anything, his good looks make the internal bitterness come through even more convincingly than if he were a glowering, heavy-featured ruffian. As for Ms Atkins... all she needs is her eyes: expressive (of course) mutable, so large they seem almost unreal, and so full of depth and wonder that you have no difficulty believing that Mendip must eventually succumb, or that she becomes the unwitting object of desire from the Devize brothers. The only wonder is that it takes so long. Two moments among many: when she stands before the Devizes and others with an oration that begins "May I, Jennet Jourdemayne, the daughter of a man who believed that the universe was governed by certain laws, be allowed to speak?" and ends with the wonderful line: "If, as a living creature, I wish in all good faith to continue living, where do you suggest I lodge my application?" The second: (spoken to Thomas Mendip): "And do you think your gesture of death is going to change it? (the world) Except for me." The look in her eyes as she says that to him should make every man afraid of women for the rest of his life. One glance, and you are lost forever --as is Thomas.
Somewhere, sometime, someone will see the wisdom of restoring and re-issuing this classic performance. Until then, I will slip my lil' ol' DVD in the player and fall in love all over again.
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