David Hare’s Plenty is a deeply conflicted play. It follows the life of Susan Traherne from her days as a secret agent during the Second World War, through her ensuing mental deterioration in the post-war period. The Britain of the 1950s and 60s, according to Hare, is morally bankrupt – hypocritical, decadent, and, like Susan, pushing itself to ruin. Underneath this almost didactic veneer, however, run less conclusive undercurrents. Directed by Luke Howarth, the current staging running at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre mainly rose admirably to the challenge of this nuanced script, although there were moments where the writing slightly outstripped the production and its actors. For the most part, however, this is a solid rendition of Hare’s state-of-the-nation play.
The form of Plenty embodies the fractured mental state of its central protagonist. Swapping between flashbacks, future scenarios, and scenes in media res, it presents scenes that form an almost hallucinogenic sequence from the early days of WWII to the mid 1960s. These transitions were well handled with scenery that needed little in the way of set changes – a few chairs and a table served as Susan’s house, an embassy, a Brighton hotel room, and fields in mid-war France. That her home was constantly open to London bridges and the foliage of the French fields meant that the landscapes melded into one another, giving a simultaneity of effect in keeping with the non-linear chronology (although including a recent copy of The Cherwell amongst Susan’s papers was perhaps pushing non-linearity a little far). The fact that it eventually became quite confusing as to where and when each scene lay on the timeline added to the overall sense of disorientation, rather than detracting from any central narrative.
Gráinne O’Mahoney gave a convincing performance as Susan, particularly in the scenes that required her to be at her most unbalanced. She lacked a little in exuding the calm self-possession that allows Susan to be so manipulative, but teased out many of the nuances of the script to portray Susan as both exploitative and vulnerable, to some extent at the mercy of those around her whilst at other times fully capable of influencing people for her own gains. In doing so, Hare throws open a debate about post-war gender roles, while providing answers to none of the questions he poses. Is Susan a feminist beacon, brought down by the excesses of those around her, or do her feminist espousals bring about her own downfall? Statements such that a woman shouldn’t have to have “some sad decorous marriage just to have a child”, or that “to be merely your husband’s wife is degrading for a woman with any integrity at all” swing from displaying a courageous independence, to selfishness and a fierce disregard for people’s emotions other than her own.
Shrai Popat and George Varley somewhat stole the show as Mr Aung and Sir Darwin, respectively, in a short scene embedded within the world’s most awkward diplomatic party. Perfectly encapsulating British post-colonial hypocrisies, they provided an excellent comic foil to the otherwise austere setting. Aoife Cantrill’s Alice was a little less successful – this sexually liberal bohemian writer is very much a self-conscious cliché, but this portrayal ended up being slightly more of the latter than the former. Andrew Dickinson as Susan’s husband was found himself overwhelmed by the gregariousness of O’Mahoney’s performance, but this was well in keeping with his character, swept along by Susan’s strength of personality.
Touching upon issues from the marginalisation of women to perception of mental health, Plenty covers a significant amount of ground in its two-hour running time. It is a play that offers little in the way of answers – it simultaneously decries the empty excess of the post-war materialist “plenty” of the play’s title, whilst mocking the idealistic lens through which Susan views her past. Even Hare himself said of the play that “there’s still something in it I don’t wholly understand.” Howarth’s production does not shy away from the difficulties in Hare’s script, embracing the multi-faceted character portraits and contradictions within the text. From the moment you enter the auditorium to be faced with a naked and bleeding man to the hollow concluding lines claiming faith in a brighter future, the staging perfectly reflects the world through the eyes of plenty: stark, brutal, and uncompromising.
‘Plenty’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday 14th February – tickets can be booked here.