It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 43: Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage (1987)
Lettice and Lovage meets our expectations of what a stock, if stereotypical, West End comedy might be. It’s sturdy, exceptionally well written, probably expensive to stage, formally traditional, and offers strong roles for leading actors. I read most of the play thinking it would make for good entertainment but hardly ‘vital’ theatre. ‘What exactly is this play for?’ I wondered. But as well as it being consistently funny, Lettice and Lovage (first staged at the Theatre Royal Haymarket starring Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzak) seems to straddle the line between quietly rebellious and stoically conservative.
Lettice Douffet is stuck in the past. Out of touch with modern technology, uncomfortable with the changing demographic of society and unsatisfied by modern architecture, she prefers to surround herself with Elizabethan food and tales of the famous deaths of England’s and France’s kings and queens. She’s fired from her job by the stiff upper lipped Lotte as a tour guide at a Wiltshire stately home for dressing up the more boring bits of its history. In a series of opening scenes, we see her different tour groups gasp and applaud at her ever-changing story of someone knighted for defying acts of gravity and catching Queen Elizabeth as she nearly fell down the stairs, the staircase since known as ‘the staircase of advancement’. In act two, we see Lotte and Lettice bond in the latter’s basement flat over some quaff – an alcoholic, supposedly Elizabethan, drink named Lovage for its somewhat spirit enhancing benefits: ‘it shouldn’t be trickled down the throat but poured’.
The plot turns, however, as the third act opens and we hear that Lettice has been charged with the attempted murder of Lotte for dropping an axe on her head during the stirring and accurate re-enactment of the execution of Charles I. The play wraps up with Lettice and Lotte determined to start up their own tour of London’s ugliest modern buildings, using Lotte’s knowledge of architecture and Lettice’s unique knack for ostentatious narration. Shaffer’s play puts centre stage the troubles of these two eccentric middle-aged women. Lotte had to give up school to look after her dad and has spent most of her career embarrassed to show any rebellious side that may have once existed and stay strictly professional. Both women appreciate the difficulties of looking for work in a world they understand less and less. Indeed, Shaffer touches on a contemporary note by expressing the thoughts of the disaffected and disillusioned, where legendary acts are reserved for the lives of kings and queens (and an England) gone by. It’s a triumphant play which, I feel, would fare being revived today. And what’s more, with all the talk of the heritage industry and theatre this week regarding Emma Rice’s departure (sacking!) from Shakespeare’s Globe, Shaffer’s play (in a reminder of Alan Bennett’s People) makes us think that subject anew.