Magazine article The Spectator

A New Look at Sartre

Magazine article The Spectator

A New Look at Sartre

Article excerpt

The Novice (Almeida) Mr Kolpert (Royal Court)

A new look at Sartre Sheridan Morley

Though an otherwise informative programme at the Almeida doesn't bother to mention it, Les Mains Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre, (which Richard Eyre as adapterdirector now calls The Novice), was first seen over here in about 1948 as Crime Passionel, in a translation by Kitty Black which it might perhaps have been gracious to acknowledge, especially as Peter Glenville's original production gave Michael Gough, Joyce Redman and Roger Livesey three of their greatest early roles.

All credit to Eyre, however, for getting us back to Sartre half a century later, at a moment when the old French philosopherplaywright is just beginning to come back into focus in his native France, albeit exactly 20 years after his death. Our major subsidised companies have an appalling record with French playwrights from Anouilh on through the alphabet, and now at last we get to see why Sartre mattered on stage, maybe even why 50,000 people followed his coffin.

Eyre has carefully repositioned The Novice so that it now has considerable relevance both to the Ulster Troubles and the fractionally less bloody fights over here for the soul of socialism under Blair. The story is in one sense simple enough: a young man, brilliantly angst-played by Jamie Glover, who is in a way the Hamlet figure, is ordered by his particular wing of a fragmented communist party (in a mythical postwar European state which Sartre jokily called Illyria) to murder an old diehard leader, savagely well played by Kenneth Cranham, who has outlived his political usefulness. Their struggle is in one sense that of Blair and Brown: the trendy young fixer against the older man of the people.. It ends up considerably more complex, as the older man is seduced by the wife of the Novice, sexily played by a Grace Kelly look-alike called Natasha Little. Then again there's the Novice's mistress, a young and ruthless rebel (Emex Gillespie), and it would be kind at this point not to tell you precisely who ends up dead, though Shakespeareans may not be entirely surprised. What matters about Sartre is his own cynical ability to undercut his own ideals; halfway from Hamlet to the latest Hollywood sci-fi, this is the tragedy of a man who cannot and will not be recycled. As Lillian Hellman once said of herself, he cannot cut his cloth to suit this year's fashions. But should he anyway?

Eyre's translation reminds us that he, like Michael Blakemore, is an expert writer as well as director; lines like `Better a good writer than a bad assassin'; `All means that work are good'; `Better to live with a murderer than bury a suicide? …

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