11 October 2022
GOOD (Harold Pinter Theatre) Review
It is difficult to do this play justice in a review because one must separate the play from the production from the direction from the acting.
“Good”, commissioned by the RSC in 1981, is Cecil Philip Taylor’s drama about John, a university professor in pre-WWII Germany who considers himself a good person yet ends up making a series of decisions ranging from bad to awful to unforgivable.
What bugged me the most throughout the evening was that we were being shown vignettes from John’s life, but I didn’t feel like I was being shown why John’s decisions and choices were progressively escalating from bad to worse. Sure, he does some talking in each that’s meant to shed some light on the matter, but it just didn’t come across as such. At no point did I think that I was shown how John rationalised his decisions to himself other than by anchoring each with reassuring himself that he is a good person. Sorry, but this is simply not enough.
Interestingly, having read a bit more about the play itself (after the show), it seems the play is meant to show us exactly how John talks himself into everything that follows him joining the Nazis. In a way, the play is meant to illustrate how the a sizeable bulk of the German nation detached themselves from the reality of what was going on in the country and the war… I am not sure if it’s down to the staging or direction, but each vignette (except for the final two) was exactly the same by way of John letting the events around him contribute to his detachment rather than using them to wake himself up.
John is played by David Tenant, who will undoubtedly be hailed by the critics. I think he does the best possible job given the production/direction constraints I mentioned, but, having seen him on stage several times, he isn’t as good here as he was in, say, Richard II at the Barbican a few years back. In Tenant, John ends up almost mopey and borderline indecisive, which isn’t a million miles from what you would expect, but you want John’s journey to be down to a set of [bad] decisions rather than lack thereof.
Elliot Levy plays John’s Jewish friend Maurice, who seems to be John’s only real friend. The two are as thick as thieves, but when things start to get bad, John first dismisses Maurice’s concerns and then outright refuses to help him. Levy’s Maurice has a gentle disposition, but, even so, it’s hard to understand why he doesn’t try to guilt John into helping using their years of friendship. Since John thinks himself a good man, you’d reckon that would be worth a try, yet Maurice just seems to accept that John has drank so much proverbial party Kool-Aid, that it’s not even worth the bother to get him to see a different perspective.
The cast is completed by Sharon Small, who plays John’s wife, as well as his mother (more on that later). From what I’d read, there have been productions with larger casts, but here, with Dominic Cooke’s direction, Levy and Small take on all the remaining roles. If I hadn’t seen “The Lehman Trilogy”, perhaps I would’ve been impressed at all the character switching. Unfortunately, “Good” pales in comparison on this score. There is simply not enough change in posture and tone of voice to create separation of character. Just because Small softly purrs as John’s wife and then speaks harshly as an SS officer, that’s not a sufficient transformation. Maybe some props would’ve helped, like a shawl for the wife, a cardigan for the mother, and an army hat for the officer. It’s hard to say, but somehow Cooke’s direction manages to make the whole thing more muddled than it needs to be.
Additionally, Tennant and Small speak in their own Scottish accents. Firstly, that was a little weird: not that I would expect German accents either, but some non-regional English wouldn’t have stood out quite as much. Secondly, because Levy’s accent isn’t Scottish, it created an artificial divide that occupied my brain when it didn’t really need to: is Cooke trying to use the accents to separate Jews and non-Jews or is the separation purely accidental? Even if the former, it didn’t add anything to the production itself, my my book anyway, and was more of an unnecessary distraction if anything.
The set is clever, the final reveal is suitably chilling, and John’s final “getting ready” scene was the most chilling for me personally (infinitely more so than the very final one, which appears to have disturbed people sat next to me far more than John’s scene).
It is definitely a play worth seeing, but that’s probably for the play itself than for the acting, though that’s probably not entirely fair. All three actors, and especially Tenant, try to make the most of it, but something about this production definitely lets them down.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £3.