Rage against domesticity

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Look Back in Anger. By John Osborne. Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

John Osborne's brand of 1950s domestic realism still has the potential to capture audience's imaginations. Aleks Sierz reports

In 1956, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger signalled the emergence of the Angry Young Men and, with its verbose tirades and naturalistic aesthetic, ushered in the era of kitchen-sink drama and social realist plays. However, as well as marking a radical break in post-war theatre history, the play, as Osborne himself acknowledged, is a very traditional three-act drama.

University drop-out Jimmy Porter lives with his upper-middle-class wife, Alison, and his Welsh friend Cliff in a Midlands bedsit. As Alison does the ironing, Jimmy harangues them with his opinions. Exasperated by his cruelty and aggression, Alison leaves Jimmy after her friend Helena arrives. Jimmy then has an affair with Helena.

Director Richard Baron says: "Although the play caught the spirit of the 1950s so well, today the most interesting thing about it is its Strindbergian aspects - the battle going on in that room, over the ironing board, is fascinating. The great danger with Jimmy is making him totally unlikeable, yet he was, in Osborne's eyes, a sort of a hero, and one of the great things about the play is his flights of rhetoric."

By contrast, says Baron: "Alison is quite passive-aggressive and uses silence as a weapon. The chemistry between the two actors playing the couple has to be believable and the audience has to care about them, otherwise it can all be too brutal. Although the relationship is quite destructive, there is clearly a great love there."

Is Jimmy a misogynist? "Yes, this is one of the accusations aimed at the play, and at Osborne himself," says Baron. "You have to see Jimmy in the context of his times, but you also have to acknowledge that he is very needy, wanting love, approval and attention. Osborne was also influenced by Shaw's Man and Superman, and Jimmy embodies the Shavian idea of women bleeding men dry. Jimmy sees domesticity as draining him of any creative talent he might possess."

Baron hopes young audiences will appreciate the central theme, "which is Jimmy's rant against inertia, his desire to be enthusiastic about life, to fully live and fully love. Despite his destructive aggression he's also crying out for meaning in his life. This should be a very lively theatrical experience - and young people won't have any trouble relating to the youthful characters."

* Look Back in Anger runs from January 14 to February 12, 2005. Box office: 0131 248 4848. Education: 0131 248 4834. www.lyceum.org.uk

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