Blake Morrison does a good job updating a classic play against the high expectations set by Northern Broadsides, but Turcaret maybe wasn’t the best play to work out of its original setting.
Amongst the many strings Northern Broadsides have to their bows, including Shakespeare, classics and new writing, there are the modern adaptations of classic stories, most notably those of the legendary writer/director duo Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson. So it must be double-edged sword adapting a classic play into a new setting for Northern Broadsides if you’re not Deborah McAndrew. On the one hand, they’ve helped build the reputation of Northern Broadsides, which nicely translates into a big audience draw for you. On the other hand, however, their reputation translates into insanely expectations for you to live up to. That’s something I wouldn’t envy anyone for. But this is a challenge long-time Broadsider Blake Morrison took up for Barrie Rutter’s swansong.*
(*: Fine print: This was Barrie Rutter’s last touring play whilst Artistic Director. This doesn’t count his last last play at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. And whatever people may say at the moment, I can’t believe it will be long before he’s acting and directing again.)
On the face of it, Tucaret looks like a natural choice for a new setting. Originally an 18th-century comedy, this is transplanted to early 20th-century Yorkshire. Rose is a young widow who has frittered away her fortune in spite of the efforts for her housekeeper Marlene (which very fitting added early 20th-century Yorkshire no-nonsense). She is courted by wealthy banker Fuller (Barrie Rutter, of course) – apparently naive at first, swiftly revealed to be shallow. However, Rose is more interested in the dashing but deceitful and dastardly Arthur, bleeding Rose dry of her money almost as fast as she can get it out of Fuller. However this setting worked in the original, it’s just as good here.
For the first half, the story builds nicely. Rose may have her own naivety but still has her own cunning, outmaneuvering Fuller and revealing him as a man who considers himself entitled to buy his way to a woman’s heart. The love triangle starts to become a love pentagon when Arthur’s put-upon sidekick Jack’s girlfriend Lisa finds herself enamoured by loverat Arthur. Most poignant, however, is a letter Marlene reads from Rose’s late husband, written just is case he dies in the war, pleading with Marlene to look out for he wife he wants to see cared for. By the interval, a whole web of plots, sub-plots and characterisation is set up for a second half.
And then … it’s squandered. In act two, the nuance and subtlety built up so well in the first act goes out of window. The original storylines peter out and instead the story shifts to Jack trying to get some money to set up a life with Lisa. The previous plot thread where Arthur sets his eye on Lisa vanishes without explanation. No do we see any real resolution to Rose and the fight to protect her from herself. There are good lines from Fuller as he grows into more and more denial over how quickly the law is catching up with his wheeler-dealings, and I did enjoy the parallels between 20th-century banker greed and 21st-century banker greed. But with Fuller and Arthur both established an unsympathetic characters in act one, it just gets ramped up to the point where both characters are reduced to pantomime villains. When Fuller’s estranged wife appears on the scene ramped to pantomime dame, I just rolled my eyes.
In Northern Broadside’s defence, you can only take this play for what it is. It’s a common misconception that all old play texts are deep and profound and if you don’t see that you’re not literaturing correctly. Half the time it was fun, mostly undemanding entertainment for the masses. Even Shakespeare wasn’t above dropping in the odd fart joke or ten. So it’s hard to insist on a poignant second-half plot if that’s nothing like the original. In that respect, Blake Morrison has been faithful to the play’s intentions. And Northern Broadsides certainly has what it takes to do this, with their usual slick pace and comic timing as and when it’s called for. But I can’t help thinking that this format of “never mind all the plot threads we didn’t resolve how about laughs?” doesn’t quite work outside the original context of early 18th-century comedy, and that’s a shame.
I don’t expect Northern Broadsides to be too disappointed with my reservations – they got more than enough four-star reviews to keep them happy. As long as you take this play for what it is, a fun piece design to entertain the masses, you won’t be disappointed here. But Northern Broadsides can do so much more than that, and as a result, this doesn’t really stretch them. If For Love or Money doesn’t stand out amongst their productions, however, it will be because of the expectations set previously by many different people, Blake Morrison included. And that is the real legacy – not just one final play – that we should attribute to Barrie Rutter here.