The very best thing about the Michael Grandage Company’s production of Richard Greenberg’s trying 2002 play, The Dazzle, is its location, a new theatre in the centre of London. Found111 is located in Charing Cross Road and is a space of great intimacy and real promise. It allows for an intensity of performance and the experience of the performance which is simply not possible in a proscenium theatre.
Ben Stones makes the most of this in his design for Simon Evans’ production which is now playing there. The acting space is very cramped, full of detritus. The audience are extremely close to the action; if they so choose, so close they can probably feel the heat of the breath of the performers as they speak. They can also see, in startling close-up, the collected junk which accompanies the two brothers who are the central characters in the piece and which includes a grand Piano, books, bric-a-brac, crockery, newspapers…you name it.
The tiny space also allows lighting designer Neil Austin a chance to work with very specific light and shadow, and he creates a real sense of abandoned reality in the way he illuminates the space, or at least some of it. The use of lighting is almost balletic, stylish and gloomy but slightly intoxicating, and ensures that the mood of the strange home of the two weird brothers is eerily alive.
The programme states:
The Dazzle is based on the lives of The Collyer Brothers, about whom I know almost nothing.
In real life, the Collyer Brothers were something of a New York fixture/legend, eccentric hoarders who lived together and died together. In 1947 one of the brothers was found dead and the Authorities searched for the surviving brother, only to discover that he was also dead in the house he had shared with his sibling.
Homer was blind and bedridden when he died; his brother, Langley, had been a concert pianist good enough to play at Carnegie Hall. The pair had amassed a ludicrous collection of junk and it appeared that one of their “booby traps” for intruders, who they seriously feared, had done for at least one of them. It was, however, the amassed hoarded rubbish which gained them notoriety, not their sad, reclusive lives.
Greenberg’s play imagines part of the lives of these two rubbish-collecting eccentric hoarders. Quite why is another question. It is difficult to see an over-arching theme or message here, or a point that the author wants to make. Rather, the play affords three actors an opportunity to dazzle with their skills, but it does not really offer much more.
It might be possible to suggest that there is a fundamental point at play – that eccentric individuality is more desirable than societal conformity – but that seems ludicrous. Neither of the brothers, nor even the woman who unbalances their equanimity, comes across as being someone whose attitudes and philosophies ought be seen as models worthy or replication.
No. This is a bizarre play about bizarre people and, in truth, it offers little except a chance to see wonderful actors create extraordinary parts.
Andrew Scott is in terrific, arresting form as the pianist Langley. He is superbly odd in almost every way, and his ability to shatter the normal patterns of speech to insight lay reveal the fractious and fascinating mind of Langley is outstanding. He is, not unexpectedly, often hilarious, but he is also very touching – in his fascination with a thread on an antimacassar or his obsession with the glory of music above all other forms of expression.
There is a child-like innocence about Scott, helped by his pitch-perfect Jimmy Stewart accent, but, at the same time, a lurking sense of malevolence and disquiet is ever present. His speech about a leaf is particularly mesmerising. It is a, well, dazzling performance – but one could not help but wonder whether the entire experience of the performance might have benefited from him playing the other part, Homer. By the end of the second Act, Homer is revealed as the most critical character, the one with the most difficult and unsettling behavioural issues. Langley is showy, fun and mercurial; Homer is the centrepiece of the trio.
The role of Homer is here played by David Dawson, who is not quite equal to the difficult requirements of the role. He gets by, but Scott overwhelms and overpowers his performance and that should not be the result. The brothers here need to be equal, to see-saw up and down together as they bizarrely go about shuttering themselves away from society and incarcerating themselves in a suffocating house of garbage. Scott and Dawson work well together, and are believable as odd brothers who do, despite everything, love each other, but Dawson channels Alan Cumming slightly too much and is just too knowing in his flirtations with the audience to create a realistic, bizarre character who can hold his own against Scott’s fully formed Langley.
Joanna Vanderham is quite lovely as Milly, the girl Langley nearly married and then Homer tries to marry. She provides a real counterpoint to the harmony of the brothers’ lives and challenges both points of view, upsetting the established fraternal bond effortlessly. Vanderham is especially good in the peculiar second Act, when the traumas of her him life have turned her hair silver and tarnished the brightness of her spirit.
It is rather unfathomable that anyone thought this play was really worth a production here. It simply does not offer anything for audiences except a chance to see actors strive for bravura performances. Scott and Vanderham make the grade, with Dawson trailing behind.
But there are better plays that might be produced in the new space that is Found111. Hopefully, The Dazzle will be the beginning of a long line of new productions in this most adaptable of intimate spaces.