Below is a small selection of press reviews relating to Edward's stage performances over the years.
The Bacchae (1975)
Nicholas Nickleby (1981)
Strange Interlude (1985)
The Misanthrope (1989)
The Power and The Glory (1990)
Krapp's Last Tape (1998)
Defending Jeffrey ... ? (2001)
Lost in the Stars (2009)
Artist Descending a Staircase (2009)
The Fantasticks (2010)
The Importance of Being Earnest (2011)
Harold Hobson, The Sunday Times, 13 July 1975
Undoubtedly Euripides's The Bacchae, which the Actors' Company is presenting at Wimbledon, is the most exciting play in the entire repertory of Greek drama. With sweeping imagination, and a reckless courage before the facts of perversion, it faces an outstanding problem of our own day – the struggle between discipline and permissiveness. It is profoundly disturbing in its suggestion, which William Arrowsmith's translation emphasises, that the exponents of permissiveness are bent on destruction, and that its opponents are less horrified than thrilled by indecency.
Anyone can see nowadays that "The Bacchae" is a world-masterpiece. But I could not help wondering, as I sat enthralled by Edward Petherbridge's beautiful and fearless production, whether I should have recognised the play as such if I had been present at its first performance in 405 BC. I think the answer is almost certainly no, for a reason that has crucially influenced judgment in the theatre during the last twenty years.
What "The Bacchae" introduces into classical tragedy is the spirit of Dionysiac frenzy. The god Dionysus (Gary Raymond) makes women mad with sexual ecstasy: and Pentheus (Keith Drinkel), who thinks this evil, goes as far as transvestism to see what it is that such women do. To those who still regard sweetness and serenity as the characteristic marks of Greek drama this is almost blasphemy. In his recently-published and combative "The Use and Abuse of History," professor M.I. Finley reminds us that when Jane Harrison accepted the Dionysiac spirit as a legitimate part of the Greek theatre she was reviled and scoffed at by most classical scholars.
"The Bacchae" is as sharp a break in Greek drama as "Waiting for Godot" and "The Square" are in our own, calling for an equal willingness to abandon old attitudes. It drove even so great and broad-minded a scholar as Gilbert Murray to argue flat against the text, that it is not Pentheus, but Dionysus, who dies at the end of the play, though the bloody head that is borne on to the stage by Agave (Sheila Burrell) is undoubtedly Pentheus's. If the plain meaning of the "The Bacchae" was difficult to accept in the twentieth century by an enlightened scholar, what problems must it not have posed to its audiences over two thousand years ago?
The National Theatre's production two years ago strove to suggest Dionysiac ecstasy by Fraserian savagery and in one case complete nudity. The attempt was one of the National's biggest failures: Euripides had never heard of "The Golden Bough." The Actors' Company is much more successful. It vividly transfers the spirit of the Maenads whom we do not see to the Chorus whom we do. This Chorus, led by Sheila Reid and Sharon Duce, with their painted or masked faces; their waving streamers; their slit dresses; their luxurious poses and sinuous legs create far more of the Dionysiac spirit than we saw at the Old Vic. Yet they do this without manifestly forgetting their civilised origin. They belong to a race which conceivably could have built the Parthenon, or written the lyrics of Sappho – especially, perhaps, have written the lyrics of Sappho. The named characters are boldly played, but it is on the Chorus that the main burden rests; and it is well placed.
Now the most illuminating training I received in drama criticism was indirect. It was when I was at Oriel College, Oxford, where I read Modern History under Sir George Clark and E.S. Cohn. It was then that there was borne in on me the realisation that nothing endures, and that it is better to seek out the good in change than to despair over what is bad, a realisation that has been to me of incalculable importance in an age when the theatre has been constantly shifting its sights. But in 405 BC there was no Oxford School of Modern History, no G.N. Clark, no Edgar Stanley Cohn; and without what they taught me I should certainly, like Gilbert Murray, have got "The Bacchae" wrong.
The Actors' Company is famous for its skill in mime. "The Bacchae" is followed by Mr Petherbridge's enchanting fantasy, The Beanstalk. "The Beanstalk" and "The Bacchae" together make a perfectly balanced evening.
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Frank Rich, The New York Times, 5 October 1981
And so, after eight-and-a-half hours of ''The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,'' we go home with an indelible final image. The time is Christmas, and a grand Victorian happy ending is in full swing. Carolers are strewn three stories high about the stage, singing ''God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.'' Families have been reunited, couples joined together, plot ends neatly tied. And our young picaresque hero, Nicholas, has vanquished the two enemies who have stalked him for five acts – his usurious uncle, Ralph, and the cruel Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers.
But is all right with the world? Not entirely. For as Nicholas sings along with everyone else, he spots, crouching far downstage center, a starving boy. At first our hero tries to ignore the sight, but he can't. So he walks over to the youth, lifts him up into the cradle of his arms, and then stands to face the audience.
As the singing and lights dim, Nicholas stares and stares at us - his eyes at once welling with grief and anger -and what do we feel? What we feel, I think, is the penetrating gaze of Charles Dickens, reaching out to us from the 19th century, imploring us to be like his hero at this moment - to be kinder, better, more generous than we are. ''If men would behave decently, the world would be decent'' - that's how Orwell distilled Dickens's moral vision. It's a vision that can still inflame us - and does - at the very end of the Royal Shakespeare Company's marathon dramatization of Dickens' third novel.
This climax is one of maybe a dozen such moments in this production, which officially arrived yesterday at the Plymouth. Working with 39 members of a great acting company, two ceaselessly imaginative directors, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, periodically reveal that they can indeed translate Dickens into pure theater. To show how ''wealthy and poor stood side by side'' in a nascent industrial world, for instance, they give us a horrifying, mimed image of lower-class humanity pressed flat against the window of a restaurant where the wealthy dine. When Nicholas is swallowed up by the city's ''huge aggregate of darkness and sorrow,'' the directors choreograph a mob that all but eats him alive. Such staging techniques are not new in this post-Brechtian era – one thinks of Paul Sills and the Becks – but they are at times exquisitely consolidated here to root out the soul of Dickens's book, and to recreate the cinematic techniques (from cross-cutting to dissolves) of his narrative. The novel's atmosphere - that dense and sweeping social canvas of a Victorian universe - also receives its due. With the aid of unbeatable costume and lighting designers, John Napier and David Hersey, the directors effortlessly move us from teeming London to the dark gloom of Yorkshire to the bucolic countryside of Devonshire. The set consists only of platforms, scaffolding, cagelike balconies and ratty bric-a-brac, but it extends by catwalks and planks through both levels of the theater. When the actors fan out into every nook and cranny - sometimes merging together to impersonate coaches or even walls - bodies and light sculpture the large space until a vanished England falls into place.
What does not fall into place, I must report, is a sustained evening of theater. We get an outsized event that sometimes seems in search of a shape. While the high points of this ''Nicholas Nickleby'' are Himalayan indeed, they are separated by dull passages which clog the production's arteries. The problem is not the length of work per se - it's the use of that length. In adapting a long novel to the stage, the British playwright David Edgar has chosen a strategy that is as questionable as it is courageous.
Unlike so many stage and film adapters of Dickens, Mr. Edgar has gone whole hog: he gives us at least a glimpse of every plot development and character (over 50 of substance and 200 altogether) in the origin al book. But how is this possible, even in an adaptation of this length? Many of the characters in Dickens's novels - especially the subsidiary ones - are not revealed through dialogue oraction, but b y the steady accretion of the writer's vitally observed details. In t he theater, those details can only be conveyed if each actor is give n enough stage time to communicate them through performance - or if a narrator reads Dickens's descriptions aloud. While Mr. Edgar does use narration here (distributed cleverly among the entire cast), he generally uses it to fill in plot rather than to supply characterizations (except in the case of a few major figures). And eight-and-a-half hours is not enough time for all the minor characters to occupy center stage as they can in a 800-page novel.
So Mr. Edgar gives some of them short shrift. The milliner Mantalini and her profligate husband, the Keswigs family, the cameo artist Miss La Creevy and the accountant Tim Linkinwater - among others - receive television's Masterpiece Theater treatment: they appear in proper costume, in animated tableaus, but they whisk away so fast that they blur. The difficulty is not that they don't measure up to the book - that's not required - but that they don't add up to anything much at all, whether one has read Dickens or not.
Individually, their brief scenes aren't bothersome, but, collectively, they pile up as dead weight - especially in the four hour part one. There are two theoretical ways to solve this dilemma: to make ''Nicholas Nickleby'' twice as long as it is, or to cut some of these people out and take care of their plot functions (if any) by adding to the spoken narration. The latter, far more preferable route can be accomplished - if a scenarist is willing to exercise fully his right of esthetic selectivity.
When it is dealing with its major characters - those that do have the time to reveal all their human twists -''Nicholas Nickleby'' is far more effective. (Part Two moves faster precisely because the action increasingly narrows its focus to the principal players). And the cast fixes some of these roles with images that will endure as long as we can remember them. To the protagonist - a lesser Dickens hero, who, unlike Pip or David Copperfield, doesn't really grow much during the narrative - Roger Rees brings so much flaring sensitivity and intelligence that he takes the goo out of the young man's righteousness. Similar miracles are worked on his best friends. Though at times overmilked for curtain scenes, David Threlfall's Smike - a frail, stuttering wastrel whose lam e body is bent almost into a Z - is the perfect apotheosis of those oppressed souls Dickens championed. As the tipsy clerk Newman Noggs, a fallen gentleman afraid of his own every move, Edward Petherbridge elevates a comic type with rending poetry.
The two major villains are equally impressive; they never devolve into mere heavies. Alun Armstrong finds Breughelesque comedy in the sadistic schoolmaster, and John Woodvine turns Uncle Ralph into a near-Shakespearean tragic figure. When this cool, imperious businessman must finally confront the humane impulses he's suppressed for a lifetime, we see a man unravel to the terrifying point where the audience's loathing must give way to a compassionate embrace.
Through no fault of the actors or Mr. Edgar, some of the saintly characters are not so memorable. Nicholas's beloved Madeline, his sister Kate, and his beneficent saviors, the Cheerybles, don't register in the novel, either. In the secondary roles, most of the company handles its multiple assignments as sharply as the script allows. Not surprisingly for a man of the stage, Mr. Edgar gives the fullest treatment by far to those supporting characters who belong to the fleabag acting troupe that Nicholas joins in Portsmouth. These provincial theatrical hams are all hilariously rendered, and their bowdlerized performance of ''Romeo and Juliet'' ends Part One on a high parodistic note that echoes the mechanicals' ''Pyramus and Thisbe'' in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.''
Interestingly enough, both the ''Romeo and Juliet'' and the production's brilliant crowning moment are the creations of Mr. Edgar. One wishes he had taken more such liberties, for these inventions are more Dickensian in spirit than many of the scenes in which he tries to be literally faithful to the book. Yet if this mammoth show recreates the breadth and plot of a Victorian novel without consistently sustaining its exhilarating mixture of pathos and comedy, one must treasure those instances when it does rise to the full power of Dickens's art. The rest of the time ''Nicholas Nickleby'' is best enjoyed – and, on occasion, endured – as a spectacular display of theatrical craft.
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Richard Corliss, TIME, 4 March, 1985
There was something about Eugene O'Neill's dour eminence as the trailblazer of serious American drama that made his critics and colleagues want to crack wise. While he toiled to bring Euripidean depth and grandeur to domestic melodrama, the nimble midgets in attendance played at defacing his stature. Strange Interlude ran for 4 1/2 hours and an impressive 426 performances; road companies packed the provinces for three seasons after its 1928 opening; the play brought O'Neill his third Pulitzer Prize, and sped him on to a Nobel in 1936. And still the jesters japed. Critic Alexander Woollcott, noting that one of the central characters was a gentleman of indeterminate sexual appetites, called Strange Interlude "a play in nine scenes and an epicene." Alfred Lunt, the doyen of Broadway actors, described it as "a six-day bisexual race." Lunt's wife Lynn Fontanne, who starred in the show, said of her nightly marathon: "This is like giving birth--it isn't worth it!"
In a revival that opened on Broadway last week after a successful run in London, Glenda Jackson & Co. are having a bit of fun with Strange Interlude, and the audience is making fun of it. Does the play deserve these responses? To an extent, yes. O'Neill was aiming for ultramodern tragedy in his tale of Nina Leeds (Jackson) and the men in her life over a quarter-century's time. Nina is an Everywoman, crippled by her need to be all women. To her dead sweetheart Gordon she must be a faithful widow. To her widowed father (Tom Aldredge) she must be a doting sister. To her weak husband (James Hazeldine) she must be a mother. To the young doctor (Brian Cox) who secretly sires her son, she must pretend to be just a friend. To her young son Gordon (Patrick Wilcox), she acts like a jealous lover. And to her devoted friend Charlie (Edward Petherbridge), she finally plays the agreeable wife. A reverberant premise; the problem is in O'Neill's pulp-opera plot, especially the revelation of a hereditary curse that propels Nina into the noblest abortion and adultery on record. That earns a titter.
These risible convolutions are undercut by another novelistic device: the interweaving of the dialogue with "spoken thoughts," asides from each character to himself and the audience. Form tangles with content here. Thematically, Strange Interlude is a tragedy about the dilemma of convention vs. desire, decorous actions vs. lancing passions. Formally, it is a tart ! comedy of contrasts between what we say and what we tell ourselves we believe. The tragedy is as hoary as a D.W. Griffith silent romance; the comedy is as up to date as The Real Thing. Appropriately, Keith Hack's production finds its tone in waggish irony, as established by Charlie, the eternal old maid. Bitching genteelly about his rivals, flouncing through life with wet rancor, Charlie is the play's most modern character. And Petherbridge's deftly broad performance connects so directly with a 1985 audience that the other men's declarations of love sound like letters from high camp. His presence amounts to a deconstruction of the text, and a radical revitalizing of it. Transformed, the play lives.
Petherbridge does tend to leave the rest of the cast stranded in anachronism. But Jackson's luscious star technique makes her tomorrow-fresh in any role. As young Nina she has the exaggerated cadences and wheedling charm of a private-school girl. Aging, her face and voice sink into stone. Throughout, she relies on the provocative mannerism of nervously jacking her chin up in moments of agitation; the demands of propriety literally give this Nina the shakes. Often enough, with unflagging energy and inspiration, Jackson sends out the shiver of greatness. At the end of each long night's journey with Nina, she must feel like a proud mother: this was worth it.
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Michael Ratcliffe, Observer, 26 March 1989
Tony Harrison's glorious 1973 version of The Misanthrope (Bristol Old Vic until 8 April, then touring NT from 26 May) returns to the British stage in no way overshadowed by memories of its premiere, and makes a brilliant start to the National Theatre's new policy of regular co-productions with regional theatres.
This is the kind of theatre that companies outside London should be able to produce several times a year: it offers a joyous text; an acting ensemble without weakness; design of a concentrating intensity, provocative disorientation and irresistible chic. All these qualities match Molière's play.
It is not, of course, true that our best regional theatres can only produce a Misanthrope when the NT is holding their hand but, despite 'The Glory of the Garden' and the recommendations of the Cork Report for a network of national theatres along French lines, the balance of funding, talent-dispersal and sponsorship remains overwhelmingly in favour of London; and co-production is one of the more immediate ways in which the balance may begin to be redressed.
The Misanthrope is a collaboration of equals; the show was rehearsed for three weeks in each centre and the stage management is shared. Bristol provided the director, Paul Unwin, and made the costumes and set. London put in sufficient money to secure Richard Hudson, the Olivier Award-winning designer from Jonathan Miller's Old Vic, and the kind of acting company induced to work outside the capital for three months by the bait of a place in the Lyttelton repertory at the end. It seems to have gone like a dream.
Hudson sets the play behind a scarlet fire-curtain punctured with a trompe-l'oeil vision of the Arcadian landscape so vehemently rejected by Célimène at the end: 'I'm only 20! I'd be terrified / Just you and me and all that countryside!' The curtain rises on a steeply raked salon, with a pompous classical doorway and black void on the left from which Molière's characters observe the performance (when not taking part) on polite gilt chairs.
For this is, among many things, a play about the impenetrable confusion of performance and sincerity as it drives the misanthropic Alceste (Edward Petherbridge) to comic despair. His adored Célimène (Siân Thomas) is attired for her social starring in a black velvet gown cut to the thigh, with a bodice that hints more aggressively at the battle or joust.
Design which is both stunning in itself and has something to say about the play performed is increasingly common outside London. The unusual pleasure of the Bristol-NT Misanthrope, however, is that even if you shut your eyes and forego Mr Hudson entirely, the great comedy comes to life. Led by the delicate Thomas and the lugubrious, long-breathed Petherbridge, Unwin's cast is vocally exceptional and expressively diverse: there is not a dull voice to be heard. The wit, energy and resourcefulness of Harrison's conversational rhyming are undimmed: the actors relish every syllable and the audience almost controls its laughter for fear of missing a beat.
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In what is billed as the play's first major production in 35 years, ''The Power and the Glory'' reveals its moral and spiritual complexity as well as its dramatic unevenness. So much of Greene's story of a whisky priest, one of the last priests alive in repressive Mexico in the 1930's, takes place in the mind of the central character, as he embarks on his plunge toward martyrdom. What ''The Power and the Glory'' has, of course, is an opportunity for an actor to give a commanding performance. The whisky priest was first portrayed by Paul Scofield (in Peter Brook's 1956 London production) and then by Olivier on television. (John Ford's film ''The Fugitive,'' starring Henry Fonda, was a free adaptation of the novel.) At Chichester, Mr. Petherbridge has risen to the challenge of imprinting his own signature on the role by taking a quiet, self-effacing approach. In his performance, this is not a tortured, larger-than-life figure but a flawed and frightened man burdened by his own sense of unworthiness. Though seemingly small in scale, the characterization is in keeping with the novel, which accents the solitary quality of the priest. As Greene wrote, ''He alone carried a wound, as though a whole world had died.'' Moving from town to town, holding Mass and offering communion - in violation of civil law - and constantly putting himself in jeopardy, the priest is a portrait of self-abandonment. He is helplessly bound to his tragic fate, even as he continues to express his limitations and his lack of confidence. In extremis, he regains his calling and, to a certain degree, his self-respect.
Both the play and the novel pose the question of whether or not man needs God, or at least the external trappings of religion. Mr. Petherbridge's character wonders if a bad priest (like himself) is better than no priest at all. Similarly, his nemesis, a police lieutenant, might wonder if a bad revolution is better than no revolution at all. The scene between the two represents the essence of the novel's thesis.
As adapted, the play tries to achieve an epic scope - a capacious cloak to be worn by what is basically a sequence of tense soliloquies and colloquies. Tim Luscombe (who directed Tom Stoppard's ''Artist Descending a Staircase'' on Broadway) has filled the large Chichester stage with panoply and incense. Crowds of people (there are more than 40 in the cast) gather in a procession that seems oddly multi-ethnic rather than Mexican. It might have been interesting to present the play stripped to its disputational roots. As it is, the spectacle threatens to overwhelm the argument. The strength of the production is in Mr. Petherbridge's performance, which rises to a dramatic pitch in his confrontation with the lieutenant (Peter Guinness) as they clash in the philosophical argument that is at the heart of ''The Power and the Glory.''
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Peter Marks, The New York Times, 29 May 1998
He's Krapp, all right: the white hair, arranged like errant strands of cotton candy; the scarlet nose, evidence of a requited love of the bottle; the shuffling feet, the frantic hands and, of course, the haunted, probing eyes, fixed on that ancient tape recorder and the plastic spools that safeguard the secrets of a solitary life.
Yes, the extraordinary Edward Petherbridge is every wiry inch the self-absorbed protagonist of ''Krapp's Last Tape,'' Samuel Beckett's one-man play, with a machine as co-star. Beckett wrote the play -- like Ionesco's ''Chairs,'' a landmark of existential drama -- 40 years ago. And though it can seem the slightest bit cloying -- ''Spooool!'' Krapp archly announces, over and over, luxuriating in the sound of his voice -- in the hands of the right actor, it remains a striking piece of showmanship.
Mr. Petherbridge, who as the pure-hearted Newman Noggs gave the original Royal Shakespeare Company production of ''Nicholas Nickleby'' its humane core, triumphantly proves the point. His version of ''Krapp's,'' which opened on Wednesday night at the Majestic Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music as one of five Royal Shakespeare offerings there this month, is appropriately weird, frequently funny and, above all, meticulously staged.
Here is an actor of poise made for small gestures, who can make the turning of a page seem an act of consequence, who offers the idea in two or three small, shambling steps that maybe this is a tired old man who sits around listening to a tape recorder a lot because his feet are killing him.
What precisely ''Krapp's Last Tape'' is about has long been chewed over by puzzled audiences. Loneliness? Regret? Lost love? The bare facts are pretty, well, bare. An old man at a dusty desk places a spool of tape on the machine and registers a range of emotions -- anger, delight, longing -- to a recording he made of his musings on a similar evening 30 years earlier.
''Thank God that's all done with,'' Krapp declares, which may or may not be the case. There are trips to a back room for a nip or two, a nibble on a banana. The tape he plays hints at a failed romance, an interrupted career as a writer; it has been reported that portions of the 45-minute piece are actually disguised bits of autobiography. (The playwright wrote a volume of French prose that, as Krapp remarks on, had sold only 17 copies.) The monologue is recited by Krapp in the coded, fragmented outpouring of the half-remembered: deeply meaningful to the holder of the memories, frustratingly vague to everyone else.
Closely following Beckett's instructions, Mr. Petherbridge, who directed the piece with David Hunt, is loath to provide any extra clues. But there are moments, welcome ones, in which his reading betrays a trace of sentimentality, as when Krapp enfolds the recorder into his arms, holding on as if it were a security blanket.
The role calls for a tragic clown; just as Krapp is addicted to bananas, it's not in his nature to avoid slipping on the peel he tosses to the floor. And Mr. Petherbridge, with the defeated air of a chagrined vaudevillian, offers such a portrait. Employing a light Irish accent (Beckett said he heard the voice of an Irish actor, Patrick Magee, when he wrote the play), he invests Krapp with an affecting dignity. He is both wise man and fool, an old gent trapped, like the rest of us, in his own story.
Lloyd Rose, Washington Post, 19 June 1998
How much can you take away from a play and still have a theatrical experience left? This is what Samuel Beckett seems to have asked himself every time he wrote a play, and the question, adapted to acting, also seems to have occurred to Edward Petherbridge, who appears for the second of only two performances tomorrow night in "Krapp's Last Tape" at the Kennedy Center. Here, as in "Hamlet," where he plays both the Ghost and the Player King, he proves to be an actor without dross.
Slender and pale with a sharp, clean profile, Petherbridge is already slightly stylized, one of those streamlined models, like Fred Astaire, who make ordinary mortals look slightly lumpish. His acting has a similar clean and simple grace -- like a dancer, he has "line." Petherbridge's austerity isn't cold; it focuses and displays a deep warmth. Eccentricity has a home here, as well as humor and compassion, and everyday human appetites.
"Krapp's Last Tape" drives Beckett haters nuts (Groucho Marx said the title should be reversed) with its refusal to allow anything to "happen." Krapp listens to parts of a diary tape he made 30 years earlier, makes a stab at recording a new tape and listens to the old tape again. That's it. On the Terrace Theater stage, designer Anthony Rowe has provided Petherbridge with an old wooden swivel chair, a mercilessly isolating hanging light, a desk with sticky drawers, and lots and lots of dust, the same stuff T.S. Eliot showed us fear in a handful of -- our ultimate common denominator.
Krapp doesn't get around to the tapes right away. There are many things to do first. Find the right key for a drawer. Succeed in opening the drawer. Fail to succeed in closing the drawer. Get down on the floor and wrestle the drawer back into the desk. Find a key for a second drawer. Open it. Discover a banana. Eat the banana.
Apparently, bananas are not a new motif in Krapp's life; on the tape we hear him confide, "Have just eaten, I regret to say, three bananas, and only with difficulty refrained from fourth." With his reedy, resonant, supple voice, Petherbridge can curl up inside this sort of absurdly elegant line like a cat. He proves equally feline in his sure-footedness regarding the banana peels, which succeed in making their presence felt but fail to capsize him.
Krapp hasn't had much of a life. His mother died while he was playing with a dog. He was in love once, but it didn't work out. He's written a book, but it sold poorly: "Seventeen copies sold, of which 11 at trade price, to free circulating libraries beyond the seas." If he isn't exactly Everyman, he's who every man fears he could turn out to be.
Why does he even make the tapes? Simple human vanity, a persistent insistence, against all evidence, that his life matters enough to keep a record of it. At base, "Krapp's Last Tape," with its picture of a man futilely and foolishly putting his life into words, is Beckett's awful joke on himself, and on all writers.
As the play ends, Krapp listens to himself on tape manfully acknowledging that his chance for happiness has probably passed forever but that he doesn't mind. Maybe it's even a good thing. Petherbridge raises his eyes to stare out over the audience with the expression of a man who has just realized precisely what that unfamiliar pain in his left chest is. It's a small moment, almost nothing. Like the playwright, this actor is a poet of stillness.
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Yorkshire Post, March 2001
Defending Jeffrey; tough job!. Especially if the Jeffrey in question is a certain Lord Archer – then it must be nigh on impossible. Fresh from maintaining the honour of the failed London mayoral candidate during Archer's play about his time in court, veteran actor Edward Petherbridge brought his own one-man show to Leeds. And Defending Jeffrey has more than proved that Lord Archer has had no lasting detrimental effect on Petherbridge's grand career. From the first moment he glided on to stage on a rope and had a conversation with his agent about the wisdom of taking the West End role of Archer's barrister Sir James Barrington QC Petherbridge held the crowd in the palm of his hand with a series of witty ruminations that may or may not have anything to do with the former Tory peer. During the course of the evening Petherbridge drifted from Shakespeare – the natural home for such an RSC luminary – to Rolf Harris; from stand-up comedian to a mime artist.
Throw into the mix a touch of Alan Bennett's with marvellous monologues and Hamlet, his own dearly departed father and the inner track of Archer's colourful life.
Petherbridge was innovative, clever, cultured and at times deeply sentimental. There can be nothing harder in the theatre than performing on your own with a minimal set to crowded stalls.
The time on stage with Archer was obviously a difficult and unsettling period for Petherbridge. This was new to an old hand who last appeared in Single Spies and he has put it to good use with a tremendous show at the same venue. At times, certainly near the beginning, Defending Jeffrey was a little hard to follow. But without any shadow of doubt it is a truly cultured and classy production. Lord Archer once said while they worked together that Petherbridge should be knighted. And if Archer penned a book half as good as Petherbridge's play he really would be a noble lord.
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Clive Davis, The Times, 25 June 2009
So now we can see how the chapter began, and how it ended. Over at the Sadler's Wells studio theatre the indefatigable Lost Musicals team is reviving Kurt Weill's first American show, Johnny Johnson, in another of its semi-staged productions. At the Southbank the director Jude Kelly and the BBC Concert Orchestra conductor Charles Hazlewood bring more ample resources to bear on a superb staged reading of the composer's farewell show.
The adaptation of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country opened on Broadway in 1949, months before Weill's untimely death. After watching this majestic 'musical tragedy' unfold you cannot help marvelling at the wrong-headedness of the once-fashionable view that Weill settled for nondescript commercial orthodoxy during his years in America. Lost in the Stars provides a bold tapestry of styles, blending classical arias, raunchy, Gershwinesque blues and, above all, a sequence of choral passages that has something of the austere grandeur of the St Matthew Passion.
Sixty years on, the music – rich in acerbic harmonies and shafts of irony that foreshadow Sondheim – hardly seems to have dated. A compact chamber orchestra, with accordion and trumpet casting melancholy shadows, keeps any hint of sentimentality at bay.
The storyline, depicting a South Africa at the beginning of the apartheid era, ought to lend itself to shallow sloganeering. But Maxwell Anderson's book and lyrics focus more on the tragedy of individuals forced into roles beyond their comprehension.
The boyish Clive Rowe brought quiet dignity to the role of Stephen Kumalo, the rural cleric whose son faces the death penalty after falling among bad company in distant Johannesburg. Josie Benson, playing a shantytown diva, came close to stealing the show with 'Who'll Buy', a more frankly sensual version of Cole Porter's anthem 'Love for Sale'.
As for Rowe's nemesis, an urbane but dogmatic champion of white supremacy, Edward Petherbridge injected depth and humanity into a slightly underwritten character whose worldview is transformed at the close. Drama comes close to overshadowing music in the second act, but the brooding presence of the chorus, standing on a gantry above the stage, is compelling throughout. The performance will be broadcast on Radio 3 on July 1.
Edward Seckerson, Independent, 25 June 2009
It is quite astonishing to look back and see what made the Broadway stage in the 1940s. It was a time of great daring and innovation when the boundaries between musical comedy and opera were less defined than they've ever been. Kurt Weill's final show for Broadway "Lost in the Stars" – his musical adaptation with Maxwell Anderson of Alan Paton's novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" – would be lucky to make off-Broadway today. And yet there it was - a deeply compassionate drama of division and reconciliation in apartheid South Africa playing the capriciously named "Great White Way" in an attempt to prick America's own racist conscience. And it took a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany to do it.
Lost in the Stars is an undeniably book-heavy, sometimes laboured, music drama where the play's very much the thing and the shattering final scene is denuded of music to lay bare the potency of the words. Stephen Sondheim was the last person to dare to do this in a piece of music theatre when he, too, gave the stage to his book writer John Weidman in the closing scene of Assassins. As was the case there, the chorus – or better yet the ensemble – has the first and last words in Lost in the Stars for they are the witnesses and commentators and makers of history in this "musical tragedy" and as such the backbone of this South Bank/BBC Concert Orchestra semi-staging. Mary King (vocal coach and casting director) should be applauded for nursing such a richly diverse group of voices through this difficult, searching, angular music.
It isn't an easy piece to bring off in what must have been limited rehearsal time, but how good to experience it at all, and in its original and so wonderfully Weillian orchestrations. The sepia colorations with oily clarinets and saxes, not to forget accordion, were duly savoured by conductor Charles Hazlewood and there vocal glimmers, too, with Tsakane Maswanganyi's Irina plumbing the soul singer in her operatically inflected numbers "Trouble Man" and the enduring "Stay Well".
The title song is one of Weill's most glorious creations and if one wondered why Clive Rowe had been cast as Stephen Kumalo when this and so much else in the score lies too low for him, the answer came in that final scene when he and the wonderful Edward Petherbridge stunned us into a numbed silence as the seeds of reconciliation were tentatively, painfully, sown.
Stephen Graham, MusicalCriticism.com, 26 June 2009
Lost in the Stars ('49) was the last stage work Kurt Weill was to complete before his untimely death in 1950. Typically for the composer the piece is something of a curio in the context of Broadway musical theatre of the late 1940s. Subtitled 'a musical tragedy', it takes an extremely difficult subject ― the onset of apartheid in South Africa ― and treats it with a great degree of maturity, and artistry too.
Based on Cry, thy beloved country by Alan Paton, with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson (Weill's previous collaborator on Knickerbocker Holiday), the music is typical of Weill in its mixture of vernacular idioms such as blues or spirituals with operatic arias and choruses, Tin Pan Alley style songs, and even some chorales. Though the styles sometimes don't gel as well as they might, and the choruses risk being somewhat portentous at times, Weill's acerbic orchestrations for chamber orchestra (with no violins and including accordion), his spirited melodic sense, and his skill at sensitively contextualising and qualifying the drama in the music means that Anderson's often poetic language and the compelling drama of the narrative are communicated strongly.
In this quite unique fully-staged production at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Charles Hazelwood led the 14-strong chamber orchestra (made up of members from the BBC Concert Orchestra) and 40-strong chorus in a rousing rendition of the score. Owing to the restrictions of the space, the action took place at stage front, beside the orchestra, with good use of scaffolding above and alongside the stage enabling choruses to stand out both acoustically and dramatically, and the judge in the courtroom scene to have a sufficiently elevated bearing. The director Jude Kelly made good use of the space; with limited room to manoeuvre it is to her credit that the production rarely felt inert.
The importance of the chorus in this work is quite startling for a Broadway piece; quite often significant emotional aspects of the play are first voiced by the chorus, and at crucial points key dramatic gestures, such as the now-quiescent and poignant reminiscence of the earlier forthright 'Lost in the Stars' melody in the final scene, are heard through the chorus. Those choruses had real dramatic heft in this performance. Though the mix of voice-types (popular, operatic, musical theatre) in the solos of the opening 'The Hills of Ixopo' did not augur well, as it turned out each of the choruses was given with a concentrated purpose and a real sense of the intensity of the narrative.
They balanced well with the small instrumental ensemble, whose shifting colours added a sustained layer of dramatic thickening to the show. The muted trumpet in the closing stages of the first and second acts, and the nimble wind players who swapped skilfully between clarinets, oboes, bass clarinets and saxophones, all stood out in strong and versatile playing that was as comfortable in slurred lines and bluesy harmonies ('Who'll Buy?'), as it was in flowing dramatic accompaniments ('O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!', 'Cry, thy beloved country'), or hard-edged dance numbers ('Train to Johannesburg').
The cast was generally strong. Josie Benson as Linda ramped up the fizz with her raunchy rendition of the brass-led 'Who'll Buy?', whilst Tsakane Maswanganyi was sombre and pent-up as Irina (though her emotions were let out strikingly in her aria 'Trouble Man'). Cornelius Macarthy as Abselom Kumalo provided a moving portrayal of decency led astray, whilst the rest of the ensemble cast displayed real chemistry and esprit in their hectic movements about the stage.
Clive Rowe as the central character Stephen Kumalo was a dignified and affecting presence. He remained a steadfast figure at the centre of the drama as his increasingly doomed search for his son Absalom, who had a year previously travelled from their rural home to Johannesburg in order to finance his education, but had fallen into a cycle of violence and crime (as foreshadowed brilliantly in 'Train to Johannesburg', with its refrain of 'white man go to Johannesburg, he come back, black man go to Johannesburg, don't come back'), moves through tragedy to a sort of final redemption. His singing was expressive, though at times his intonation felt a little sluggish, and he had a habit of jumping ahead of the beat. However his rendition of 'Lost In the Stars' at the close of the first act was a highpoint of the show; he brought real grandeur, intelligence and candour to the existential despair of the lyrics.
The drama somewhat takes over from the music in the second act. A shift into more actorly melodrama is required, albeit with decisive interjections from the chorus, something negotiated with skill here. Rowe as Kumalo developed a deeply moving relationship with James Jarvis, a crucial non-singing role here portrayed by Edward Petherbridge with a depth of emotional characterisation that lifted the second act to the high standards of the music-rich first. Their relationship rang entirely true thanks to the humanity brought to bear by both actors. It seemed impossible initially (Jarvis' prejudices against the black community seeming to have been confirmed by his son's murder by Abselom), but their rapprochement felt inevitable and vivid at the close following Jarvis' acceptance of his son's egalitarian attitude, and his recognition of the nobility of Stephen Kumalo.
Lost in the Stars illuminates some aspects of the human experience that lay at the centre of the tragedy of apartheid by treating both sides with generosity of spirit, and by maintaining a certain astuteness in the face of human nature (to whit, Stephen's response to a query of what he'd say to the charge of large scale cruelty from the whites in South Africa: 'all men have evil in their hearts'). Weill's music blends effectively with the drama, enhancing it, without ever smothering its finer points. This production managed to carry forth to its audience much of this character. The moving conclusion aroused much emotion in the hall.
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Lyn Gardner, Guardian, 7 December 2009
An elderly painter, Donner, lies dead at the bottom of a staircase while his two studio colleagues argue over the milk order and which one of them is the murderer. Nothing is quite what it seems in Tom Stoppard's jolly jape, a ridiculously enjoyable look at memory, love and the arbitrary patterns of life.
Even the deft structure of the play, with its 11 scenes moving initially backwards and then forwards in time, is a joke on Duchamps's Nude Descending a Staircase. Providing you don't take the curmudgeonly pronouncements on artistic endeavour to heart, there's much to give pleasure in this 90-minute piece that is not so much a whodunit as a riff on "how do you see it?".
The trio of artists in question are Donner, Martello and Beauchamp, three former artistic pranksters who in their youth throw in their lot with the surrealists, but whose real passion is for the beautiful Sophie. Although blind, she is rather more perceptive than the three of them put together. Even so, the unreliability of memory plays a part in the tragedy that unfolds and reverberates down the years. Michael Gieleta's revival of the play, originally written for radio but transferred seamlessly to the stage, makes a virtue of the cramped space.
It seems odd not to cast a blind actor as Sophie, but that's not to discredit Olivia Darnley's performance. And Edward Petherbridge and Max Irons excel as the older and younger Donner, a man destined to see the truth too late.
Rhoda Koenig, Independent, 14 December 2009
Why were we told that Tom Stoppard first wrote with emotion, rather than just cleverness, in The Real Thing?
At least, that was how the play was promoted in New York when I, then living there, interviewed its dashing young star, Jeremy Irons, in 1984. Twelve years before, however, a British radio audience heard a play that had enough feeling choked behind its stiff upper lip to dampen their eyes. And now, in Artist Descending a Staircase, Irons's son Max, who did not exist until a year after our talk, acts in a manner so painful and sweet as to make the romantic young and the regretful old pay him tribute with their tears.
This stage version was originally seen in 1988, when it was criticised for being explicit and heavy-handed where the original was delicate and sensitive. I can only say that this one, shuffling time sequences like a stacked deck, full of emotional collisions and near-misses and light-as-air symbolism of the closeness of life and death, is more than sensitive enough for me.
There is also, of course, plenty of characteristic Stoppard playfulness (an artist talks about meeting Tarzan when he means Tristan Tzara, of having danced with a woman at Queen Mary's wedding – "no, maiden voyage") and waspish wit. Modern painters, says a traditional one, are "like priests – they demand our faith that something is more than it appears to be – bread, wine, a can of soup."
The play opens with two artists, Martello and Beauchamp, who have shared a studio with Donner for 60 years, discovering his body at the foot of the stairs. A tape recorder captured his last words: "Ah, there you are." Who was the visitor, and did he give the old man a push? Trying to solve the riddle, the two re-enact ancient quarrels and rivalries but miss, until the last seconds, what is literally under their noses.
Michael Gieleta's production is beautifully judged and cast. David Weston and Jeremy Child as the old Martello and Beauchamp, Ryan Gage and Alex Robertson as their young selves are all impeccable. But the highest honours go to Irons, as the young Donner to Edward Petherbridge's fierce, flinty old one; and to Olivia Darnley as the beautiful blind girl who tragically shows that, when it comes to love, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
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Edward Petherbridge as an ancient actor effortlessly steals the scene every time he puts a foot on stage or does a Sinden boom, proving that to portray a terrible old ham you need a serious, un-hammy old pro.
Libby Purves, The Times, 10 June
Edward Petherbridge ... exude[s] his familiar air of silvery, quixotic lightness as an ancient thesp.
Michael Billington, Guardian, 10 June
Edward Petherbridge ... does some of his sweetest, silliest clowning as the old actor, ably assisted by Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot.
Michael Coveney, WhatsonStage.com, 10 June
The best double-act ... comes courtesy of Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter who emerge from a trunk to play a quixotic, quote-besotted old thesp and his gormless sidekick whose speciality is chaotically mimed death-scenes.
Paul Taylor, Independent, 11 June
What [Miyamoto] has is that very particular ability to create laughter and wonder out of nothing. Edward Petherbridge (The Old Actor) and his side-kick Paul Hunter (The Man Who Dies) did so, too, Petherbridge bringing a wonderfully wry world weariness and faded authority to an old actor whose Shakespearian dementia is both funny and strangely touching. He plays the confusion so deftly that you wonder if it’s for real. Hunter’s compendium of variations on the untimely death scene makes comic art of ham. Between them they kick the show deliciously off-kilter.
Edward Seckerson, Independent Blog, 10 June
Edward Petherbridge steals the show as the The Old Actor, Henry, who's not only rather doddery on his feet, but delivers an out-dated declamatory style of Shakespearian acting which, though well past its sell-by date, is nonetheless funny and engaging.
Peter Brown, London Theatre Guide – Online, 10 June
From the moment of their wonderful entrance on stage [Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter] are laugh-out-loud funny. Petherbridge really is fantastic and is in total control of the audience.
Edward Lukes, The London Magazine, 11 June
Under Amon Miyamoto's direction, it is done with great flair and it has a lot to commend it, not least a great comic double act from Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter, who seem to be performing Waiting for Godot as the show goes on around them.
Tim Walker, Sunday Telegraph, 13 June
Particular delight comes from a couple of hack thespian characters played with exactly the right note of languid irreverence by Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter.
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, 15 June
A genius turn from Edward Petherbridge as the crumpled, ageing Shakespearean luvvie whose every gesture, word or weary sigh was pure comedic gold.
Roisin Gadelrab, West End Extra / Islington Tribune, 17 June
… Edward Petherbridge’s fabulously flamboyant portrayal of an ageing thespian. Where (or, indeed, whether) he fits in with the plot is immaterial: looking like a grizzled Don Quixote, his miraculously muddled shtick as ‘The Old Actor’ is a constant delight, whether dropping inappropriate or unfinished classical quotes at every opportunity or retreating absent-mindedly into a private world of past triumphs, his every appearance is a delight. In truth, he is the primary reason to visit this show.
Clive Burton, Theatreworld Internet Magazine
Paul Hunter (Mortimer) and Edward Petherbridge (Henry) in The Fantasticks
Duchess Theatre, 2010. Photo: Geraint Lewis
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Edward Petherbridge’s prophet Tiresias ... brought lyrical beauty to his speech.
There Ought to Be Clowns, 21 May
By the end, the stage has been metaphorically littered with bodies at least in reportage, in a carnage prophesied by Edward Petherbridge's dignified but ironically sightless seer, Tiresias.
Philip Fisher, British Theatre Guide, 23 May
Edward Petherbridge's appearance as Tiresias is all too brief.
So anyway, 24 May
Edward Petherbridge (the programme notes he has a new book out Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances – that’ll be worth a read I’m sure) as the wise prophet Tiresias, speaking the truth to Kreon was an especially powerful scene.
Theatre Thoughts Blog, 28 May
Inevitably, the appearance of Edward Petherbridge as the seer Tiresias brought all the portence that is needed to swing the bias of the drama … Petherbridge spoke with mesmerising finesse.
Framescourer, 30 May
Edward Petherbridge lent Tiresias a lyrical grandeur.
Time Out, 6 June
The metaphor throughout the play is of a body in need of a burial ... Raw flesh is a broad term as blind man Tiresias describes the juices running off cooked meat better than anyone present with full vision. Theatre legend Edward Petherbridge delivers his character’s hard-won wisdom like a master.
Lita Doolan, remotegoat.co.uk, 12 June
Edward Petherbridge (Tiresias) and Jamie Glover (Kreon)
Photo by Bronwen Sharp
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When Iqbal Khan’s dinky production switches to the countryside, the evening flowers into gorgeous bloom, revealing its best tunes and strongest performances. … The delightful Susie Blake as a guilt-etched Miss Prism steals the show twice; once alongside Edward Petherbridge’s wonderfully abstracted Dr Chasuble in a clever, cooing, emotionally coiled duet.
Susie Blake and Edward Petherbridge are sublimely funny as Prism and Chasuble, the latter all dotty distraction, the former a bulbous-eyed whirlwind of trapped novel-writing fervour.
The young lovers, Mark Edel-Hunt, Anya Murphy, Colin Ryan and Flora Spencer-Longhurst have their work cut out to hold their own against old hands Stefan Bednarczyk, Susie Blake and Edward Petherbridge. … It is the music that lifts this version of the old favourite from the very good to the outstanding. … Cecily's explanation of her instant falling for Algernon (‘Wicked’ is a high point, but even that is topped by Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble’s coy confession of late-blooming love (‘It All Began In A Garden’).
Susie Blake and Edward Petherbridge as an adorable Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble really do great work, their duet ‘It All Began In A Garden’ is a delightfully sweet take on the birds and the bees.
THERE OUGHT TO BE CLOWNS, 14/12/11
Susie Blake and Edward Petherbridge as a delectable Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble were the undoubted stars of this show for me and brought the often overlooked emerging love between these two characters into wonderful full beam comedic light. I loved each and every moment they were on stage and their songs were simply perfect. Two great actors, enjoying themselves on stage with such a sense of fun is a pleasure to watch.
The stars of the evening are, without question, Susie Blake (Prism) and Edward Petherbridge (Chasuble) as the dotty and forlorn would-be-lovers. Their duet at the top of act two is, and would be, a showstopper in any production.
UK THEATRE WEB, 17/12/11
The duet ‘It All Began In A Garden’ is undoubtedly a highlight thanks to the delicious comedic marriage of Susie Blake as Miss Prism and Edward Petherbridge as Canon Chasuble.
WEST END WHINGERS, 22/12/11
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