Transferred to Theatre Royal, Haymarket on 28 October 2015
There’s been an accident on stage. The star has accidentally stabbed another actor in the eye with a walking stick. It seems his eyeball has burst; blood is cascading everywhere. The curtain comes down hurriedly; the female stage manager is aghast. Luckily, a surgeon is backstage, having just been participating in an elocution lesson given by the star at interval. The surgeon springs into action, his fellow elocution students in varying states of shock.
A quick examination. The surgeon calls for a pisspot, explaining that urine is used on eye wounds on the battlefield. The pretty woman fetches the pot but it is empty. There is a slight, uneasy pause and then Mr Foote starts to undo his breeches, prepared to donate his urine to the cause. The pretty woman is horrified, whisks away the pot, places it under her voluminous petticoats, and bears down to provide the necessary fluid. But as she tries her hardest to pee on demand, inhibited by the watching men, the patient’s condition deteriorates.
The star is distraught. “Is this what I have wrought? This, this to be his final exit? A cane through his brain and pissed on by an overdressed molly?” Foote is indignant – “I am not overdressed!”
This is Richard Eyre’s production of Mr Foote’s Other Leg, a new play by Ian Kelly, based upon his book of the same name (Kelly is also a member of the cast), now playing at Hampstead Theatre. Part historical romp, part ode to the craft of theatre, part critique of the contrast between surface respectability and hidden excess in 18th Century London, part biography (not just of Foote but of other historical figures such as Garrick and Benjamin Franklin) and part examination of the curious relationship between the press, celebrities and their followers, Kelly’s play is a refreshing, but undeniably old fashioned, play.
It is also very, very funny.
Kelly is upfront about the fact that the play, unlike his book, is not meant to be historically accurate. It has the whiff of truth about it, but situations and characters and events are modified or imagined for the purposes of the narrative. It starts as it intends to proceed – a very funny scene in an anatomy museum, where two of Foote’s confidantes have come to retrieve one of his artificial legs. It’s slapstick, almost, and provides a solid introduction to a play which will be full of obscene quips and barbs, sexual innuendo, and the gory details of theatrical and surgical procedures in the 18th century.
Foote is a towering figure of the time, a well known and celebrated agenda-setting comic and satirist. He knew everyone who was anyone: Casanova, Benjamin Franklin, Ben Johnson, David Garrick, Charles Macklin and Prince, later King, George – the one who eventually went mad and who was on the throne when America cut itself loose from the British Empire.
Foote pre-dates and prefigures the career and devastating fall of Oscar Wilde (the parallels are quite surprising). Although Foote was a son of Cornwall, not Ireland, and had an interesting family (“My uncle killed my other uncle, my father married my aunt, we’re a close family”) he believed in the theatre and championed it, gaining a royal license from King George for his Theatre Royal Haymarket, which was a building slightly north of where the present-day Theatre Royal Haymarket majestically sits.
Tim Hatley’s set and costume design brilliantly ensures the clear sense of the theatrical is constantly on view. Everything is, effectively, set backstage, immediately bringing shadows, gossip, and a sense of tense expectation to everything that happens. Rehearsals, backstage drama, snatches of performances, fights, quiet tenderness, and even an amputation below the knee – despite the wealth of different narrative situations, Hatley ensures that everything is seen in a theatrical context but never sacrifices clarity of setting for the propulsion of the theme. You always know where you are and what you are seeing, and the lavish (sometimes hilariously) period costumes are stunning. Peter Mumford’s exquisite lighting perfectly conjures up the candlelit times in which Foote and Garrick worked and also plays with the notion of Franklin’s electricity and the savage darkness that was everywhere in London, seemingly waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting.
Eyre’s staging brings all the elements together with a miraculous and engaging ease. It’s a sumptuous production, from the fabrics in the costumes to the delicious enjoyment of language evident in the performances. Characters are deftly and persuasively established, and the conviction in the staging is impressive indeed.
When Foote is injured, and suffers a floating knee injury, his left leg must be amputated, without anaesthetic, and the process is played out directly on stage. Like the very best horror, the sequence is discussed, described and implied but not actually shown, except in the expressions and attitudes and screams of those involved, so the impact is profoundly disturbing – it is almost as if the amputation is happening to you. So effective was this sequence that the two patrons next to me fled at interval, unable to face any more implied gore.
If Eyre mis-steps here it is only in one respect. The play seems too long. This is not to say that it is not constantly interesting, it is, but there are some matters played out which are not strictly necessary. Rather than permit the work to possibly overstay its welcome, judicious cutting might serve a better purpose. The sequence where Foote humiliates, and then forces himself upon, his “blackamoor” valet/assistant Frank is startling and uncomfortable but it takes the play into waters that don’t necessarily require chartering in this play.
One of the results of the performance is a keen desire to read (or re-read) Kelly’s original book; that worthy result is enough to permit the play to focus only on those matters which are essential to the enjoyment of the play – the forensic detail of Foote’s life can safely remain the province of the novel.
As Foote, Simon Russell-Beale enjoys himself immensely and ensures that the audience does too. It’s a rich, buttery, and larger-than-life performance, chock-full of insinuating glances and leery, jowly and savage wit. He revels in the language, ensuring every laugh is mined from the rich vein Kelly has provided – mostly, it appears, from the writings of Foote himself. Equally, though, Russell-Beale delivers the raw, emotional underbelly of the character, and is impressive in switching tone to emphasise and underline dramatic highpoints.
There is something profoundly sad about Russell-Beale’s drag routines in the second Act as the brutal fusion of the character’s desires and skills produces insightful moments that are fragile and humbling, as well as biting and undeniably sad. An interesting quirk involves the actor frequently looking to the audience for a response; at first this seems indulgent, but as the narrative plays out, it is revealed as an incredibly acute character tic: Foote is precisely the type, riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing, to constantly crave attention and approval. It’s one of many ways Russell-Beale deftly lays Foote bare.
There are other equally impressive performances. Author Kelly is first class as the Prince and then King George, affably arrogant, born to rule, but slightly detached and aloof. His annoyance about the newspapers covering Foote’s disgrace in preference to the trouble in America is a beautifully judged comic-tragic moment. Jenny Galloway provides a wonderfully coarse and loyal Mrs Garner, her cracking delivery in the opening scene in the anatomy museum setting the tone for the risqué musings to follow: “Nothing against them. Cocks in bottles. Best place for them…Trip down memory lane.”
Joseph Millson is suave and utterly convincing, charting the rise of David Garrick from law student to God of the West End with careful authority. He and Russell-Beale establish a marvellous rapport as onstage rivals and friends. Dervla Kirwan completes the central trio here as Peg Woffington, Garrick’s sometime lover and Russell-Beale’s muse. After a rocky start, Kirwan settles into a lovely, sensual performance which is completely engaging, and she provides the evening’s saddest and most sober moments because of the depth she gives to Peg. Kelly paints her as an actress who was one of the great Desdemonas to Garrick’s Othello – and that character’s fate is reflected in Peg’s own relationship with Garrick and Foote.
As the wily, steely and inquisitive Scottish surgeon, John Hunter, Forbes Mason is delightfully acerbic and dispassionately inquisitive. His work in the scene where the amputation occurs is outstanding, chilling in its directness, and he makes the imagination of the surgeon acute and lively. Micah Balfour is beautifully understated as Foote’s servant, Frank Turner, and he creates a very memorable character out of not much material.
All of the characters are memorable and the interweaving of their stories and fates is wholly entertaining, surprising and unexpectedly touching. For a play with so many laughs, it also brims with insight and fascinating observations about culture and politics, both personal and public.
The Hampstead season has all but sold out, if not actually sold out. Make every effort to grab a return. The production really ought to transfer to the West End and run and run, preferably at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. To see this rich plum pudding of a play in the theatre which is closest to the place where Foote worked his magic, and which bears the name of Foote’s own passion, would be really something.