Look Back in Anger still has relevance in the present

Annabelle Comyn feels her revival of John Osborne’s classic play will show how its central angry young man is very much alive in today’s world, writes Alan O’Riordan.

Look Back in Anger still has relevance in the present

Annabelle Comyn feels her revival of John Osborne’s classic play will show how its central angry young man is very much alive in today’s world, writes Alan O’Riordan.

The myth-making around Look Back in Anger and its impact when it was first staged in 1956 has been both extensive and, latterly, contested. Yet, it remains accurate to say that John Osborne’s play exposed a moribund theatre culture the shock of the new — as Kenneth Tynan, anointing Osborne as the voice of youth, famously put it, the protagonist Jimmy Porter was “the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet”.

And the play that contained him was defined by an emotional intensity, an anger at odds with the prevailing establishment as represented by the mannered style of the likes of Somerset Maugham, Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward.

It's setting, too — the cramped flat of a market trader, his wife behind the ironing board — had a kitchen-sink quality that had rarely been seen before.

The inclusion of Look Back in Anger in Selina Cartmell’s first programme at the Gate Theatre invites a certain wry interpretation, given the (unfairly reductive) view of the Gate as a home to mannered, middle-class entertainments.

Yet, for the director of this revival, Annabelle Comyn, the pressing matter is not so much the symbolism of this Gate revival, but what the play says to us now — and the need to examine closely elements that have, over time, become more and more problematic.

“I think there is a lot about this play that is relevant now, but also a lot about this play that needs to be probed and questioned as well,” says Comyn, as we sit deep in the bowels of the Gate late on a Friday evening, feeling its machinery cranking up for curtain-up.

“In terms of what’s relevant about it now, I suppose, the voice of Jimmy, if you could go forward 60 years, it’s almost the voice of people who voted for Brexit, or for Trump. ”

In the case of Porter and his generation, the frustration stemmed from a postwar settlement that gave them a path upwards socially, thanks to the Education Act, but not real acceptance by the middle and upper classes. Jimmy’s is the anger of a generation in no-man’s land: too young to have fought in the war, too old to benefit from the cultural change brought by popular music, and, indeed, the social realist works that were Look Back in Anger’s legacy.

Brexit and Trump voters, too, feel they occupy a no-man’s land, having been abandoned, politically and economically, by liberal elites.

“Jimmy rages because he doesn’t know who he is,” says Comyn. “He’s proud to be English, yet he doesn’t really know what it means to be English. It’s a voice of non-existence, a voice that shouts but is not heard. Yet what also comes across is a very problematic voice, a very misogynist voice, and sometimes what feels like an anti-gay or racist voice. He goes and puts blame on so many others that are not the cause.”

In this sense, the play can now easily be seen in continuity with Osborne’s own voice, which grew

increasingly reactionary as the years went on. It’s a strain of conservatism in the play that was often occluded by its sheer freshness.

“I think that is where the play gets blurred with Osborne’s voice,” says Comyn. “As one of the actresses said, a working class voice being the lead voice, not just coming in as butlers coming in, that so new that it possibly stopped the play being probed with more scrutiny in terms of what it is actually saying.”

Comyn, though, is acutely aware that this is the challenge for her production. “When I started to think about how we might handle it, I thought we were maybe in battle here with the voice of the author. The question, as actors, as a director, as designers, is to take on the authority of the author.”

We seem, though, to be in the time of the angry young woman, rather than the angry young man. Is it time to retire the likes of Jimmy Porter, then? Do characters like him even deserve our sympathy and attention?

“I’m hoping,” says Comyn, “that we will sympathise with a man who is trying to cope with the change that is happening around him. My thinking is that any form of change has fallout. Change can be good but it doesn’t come without a cost. People have to readjust and find their way. I’m hoping the production will pick up on that.”

As Comyn also reminds us, there is a lot in Jimmy that remains uncomfortably relevant for our times, too. “These voices still exist. The rages exist now — there is a feeling now, that people say, ‘oh, you are all snowflakes and we should be able to say what we feel, to the point of being abusive’. So I think we are back in that era, a little bit — or more than a little bit.”

Look Back In Anger runs at the Gate Theatre, Dublin from Feb 7 to March 24

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