Writer: Kazuo Ishiguro
Adapter: Barney Norris
Director: Christopher Haydon
Reviewer: Alice Fowler
Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece is all about the path not taken: a study in regret, the strictures of class and what happens when we refuse to see the truth. Stevens, the butler at the story’s heart, is a man careful never to forget his umbrella, but whose own feelings have been neglected and repressed.
Playwright Barney Norris has adapted Ishiguro’s novel with tenderness, reflecting on the experience of members of his own family who were ‘in service’. His adaptation treads a skilful line, remaining faithful to the book yet steering out of the shadow of the film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins.
The action takes place in England before and after the Second World War. Stevens, convincingly played by Stephen Boxer, has dedicated his life to his master Lord Darlington (Miles Richardson), an appeaser. While Darlington has backed the wrong side of history, refusing to see the truth, Stevens is blind to his attraction to the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Niamh Cusack). Cusack makes fine work of Kenton, a woman who shows her feelings as best she can: bringing flowers to Stevens’ room and flirtatiously checking what book he is reading. She, like us, may long to shake Stevens into acknowledging reality. In this moving play, however – sensitively directed by Christopher Haydon – truth too often proves elusive.
Designer Lily Arnold’s effective set is made up of pillars, sometimes running with water. Characters step between them, moving back and forth in time as Stevens’ memories shift and at times threaten to overwhelm him.
This is also a political play. In one particularly moving scene, upper-class MPs turn on Stevens and question him on complex issues of international politics. Stevens, trapped by his class, education, the time in which he lives and a life of dedicated service, cannot answer. Meanwhile, in a cafe in the West Country, a man of humble background, who has lost a son in the Great War, speaks up for democracy.
Writer Ishiguro moved to Britain with his family aged five and came to live in Guildford. It is easy to imagine, watching this fine play at the town’s Yvonne Arnaud theatre, that his acute observations of the English class system were honed nearby.
As so often when we examine the past, modern references abound. This study of uptight Englishness also explores our relationship with Europe. Thought-provoking and timely, it is not to be missed.
Runs until 13 April 2019 | Image: Iona Firouzabadi