The Play this time:
“The Entertainer” by John Osborne
For the first play-reading of 2017 we have chosen a play that is currently in Hong Kong cinemas, the Kenneth Branagh Company’s captured live production of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer. Branagh’s production, with Branagh himself in the title role, recognises the play as a modern classic. Having depicted an "angry young man" in his earlier hit West End play Look Back in Anger (1956), Osborne wrote, at Laurence Olivier's request, a new work concerning an angry middle-aged man in the follow-up. Its main character is Archie Rice, a failing music-hall performer. The first performance was given on 10 April 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre, London, a theatre known for its commitment to new and nontraditional drama; the inclusion of a West End star such as Olivier in the cast caused much interest.
The Entertainer is a portrayal of the Rice family, spanning three generations of vaudeville artists who are finding it increasingly difficult to secure their position in the midst of the fast-changing world. Conversations between the grandfather Billy and his granddaughter Jean alternate with performances by his son Archie, whose sarcastic songs hold a mirror up to his audience. His protagonist Archie Rice performs twice nightly at a nude revue, with musical numbers intercepted into the drama drawing parallels not only with the wider cultural and economic movement but also with domestic issues that hang over his fractured family. When the family comes together and the liquor kicks in, news of the death of Archie’s son Mick – killed in action overseas – leaves all its members feeling utterly adrift. Osborne paints a grim picture of England as an empire in decline, where the underprivileged classes are no more than cannon fodder and their patriotism and latent racism combine to create a toxic cocktail. In the Rice family Osborne depicts granddaughter Jean as the only hope for the future: she refuses to be a martyr and rejects nostalgic talk and blaming convenient enemies. By turns sentimental, provocative and tender, this bold play draws on the rich music hall tradition, dressing despair as comedy and setting cynicism to the tune of bittersweet melody.
In The Entertainer the music-hall tradition - once thriving in Hong Kong, as in the UK - is a metaphor for the nation: the decline and fall of the Holborn Empire would mirror the decline and fall of the British Empire. Set against the background of the Suez Crisis, Osborne draws together the cultural significance of the decline of British music hall throughout the 1950s as a symbol for the decline of the country in a wider sense. “The music hall is dying,” Osborne wrote in his author’s note to the published text, “and, with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.” The play continues to fascinate audiences and theatre companies, and in 2016-17 could hardly feel more relevant to a contemporary audience in a world of deep social and political divisions.
Come and enjoy the play as a reading. All welcome. There is no need to read if you don't wish to. If you prefer, you are welcome just to listen. However, all who wish to read will have the opportunity to do so.
Facilitators: Mike Ingham and Julian Quail.