Fresh from her success with The Mentalists starring Stephen Merchant, theatre director Abbey Wright takes on T.S. Eliot at the Print Room for her production of The Cocktail Party
Theatre-lovers are invited to a soirée in Notting Hill; a strange, darkly comic and thought-provoking bash scripted by T.S. Eliot, as the Print Room kicks off its autumn season with a revival of the great poet’s play, The Cocktail Party. Eliot’s subversive take on that classic theatrical form, the drawing room comedy, tells the story of a marriage going very wrong. Lavinia Chamberlayne leaves her husband of five years, Edward, just before they are due to have their friends round for drinks. As the party unfolds, Edward is forced to explain away her absence, until a mysterious stranger gatecrashes with Lavinia in tow.
When the play first appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 1949, in a production starring Sir Alec Guinness, it was a huge hit, taking both Broadway and the West End by storm. The director of this revival, Abbey Wright is fresh from her own recent West End success, having just directed Stephen Merchant in The Mentalists, and she says that her version of The Cocktail Party will stay true to Eliot’s vision. ‘People might expect the play to be old-fashioned but it is so experimental in terms of form, far more than many contemporary plays you see now, and it’s a lethal play, too. Without giving too much away it has a violent core,’ she tells me. Eliot based The Cocktail Party on Euripides’s Alcestis and Abbey certainly sees it in the epic terms of Greek drama. ‘Don’t expect to see a drawing room set. We are not ever really in the drawing room, but a distorted version of one,’ she says.
The Cocktail Party is the first production in a new season of work at the Print Room, which is now nicely settled in at Notting Hill’s Coronet Cinema. It will be followed in mid-October by Ubu and the Truth Commission, a show from Handspring Puppet Company (the team that created the puppets for War Horse), that will dramatise the testimonies from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
While the Print Room is up and running in its new surroundings, having moved from its original much smaller home in Hereford Road, the ambitious project to renovate the Coronet is still ongoing. Eventually, the venue will run a cinema programme along with staging performances in three theatre spaces at the venue and the guiding principle of the renovation, along with creating a superb, multi-purpose arts centre for Notting Hill, has been to restore the Coronet to its former glory.
The Cocktail Party will be the first production to appear in the venue’s newly created main auditorium and Abbey says the building, which she describes as ‘a pretty extraordinary old playhouse, absolutely stunning with a dilapidated grandeur’, is the perfect place to stage T.S. Eliot’s drama. She was delighted when she managed to persuade Anda Winters, her friend and the Print Room’s artistic director, to allow her to have a crack at it.
Anda, presumably, didn’t need to speak to Abbey for long to be persuaded, as the director is a convincing evangelist for the play and Eliot’s work in general. She says The Cocktail Party asks ‘great big questions’ about religion and spirituality, how we choose to live and how married couples relate to each other, and explores these themes in a stripped back, visceral poetic language. This style of writing, she explains, frees her and her cast to be ‘quite theatrical and bold with our choices’. Abbey is keen to point out that the play’s comic elements also have a vital impact.
‘The thing that is surprising and radical about The Cocktail Party is that it is very funny and people might not expect that,’ she says. ‘Eliot uses traditional forms like farce and music hall, using them in surprising ways so that he disorientates the audience and gets into their psyche.’ Abbey developed her passion for Eliot’s dramatic works when working as an assistant director on The Family Reunion at the Donmar Warehouse eight years ago. Since then, she has been desperate to do The Cocktail Party and she is hopeful her take on it will spark renewed interest in and appreciation of T.S. Eliot, the playwright. ‘Marcia Warren, who is playing a character called Julia, said to me in rehearsals, “why don’t people know this play?”’ Abbey believes the answer lies in changing fashions ‘as Waiting for Godot and kitchen sink drama came along’. ‘But,’ she adds, ‘I really think it’s a masterpiece – it’s funny and entertaining, but transcendent, too.’
The Cocktail Party is on at the Print Room at the Coronet until the 10 October; the-print-room.org
Words: Will Gore