Are tragedy and comedy at the opposite ends of the spectrum in theatre? It would seem so in this play when David Garrick, appearing as a conventional Othello, and his rival Samuel Foote, staging “Othello: The Comedy”, come to blows. Both blacked up for the lead role, their brawl is watched with incredulity by Foote’s Jamaican-born dresser. Yet, the strength of the play lies with the way in which tragedy and comedy appear as bedfellows (quite literally in Act II), working side-by-side, feeding off and strengthening each other. Garrick’s name is carved in theatre history but his fellow 18th Century actor Foote, founder of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, is less well remembered and Ian Kelly’s adaptation of his biography sets out to rectify this. For good measure, Kelly himself appears as Prince George (later King George III). Richard Eyre’s production gets off to a slow start, the jokes are hit and miss, the narrative structure is episodic and, when even Simon Russell Beale (as Foote) dressed in an array of absurd costumes is not particularly funny, something seems wrong. But the aforementioned scene is inspired, elevating the production to a higher level, and there is no looking back thereafter. Following a riding accident, Foote has a leg amputed (a gruesome scene, but staged brilliantly), his physical health deteriorates, he suffers from depression and becomes mired in scandal. Now, as in a condensed version of King Lear, the clown’s mask is ripped off to reveal a crumbling body and mind and Russell Beale, arguably the greatest stage actor of his generation, gives one of his greatest comic/tragic performances, surpassing his actual Lear at the National last year. He gets some outstanding support – Dirvla Kirwan as Peg Woffington, the Irish leading lady three times the age of Juliet, but still playing her; Joseph Millsom as an earnest and arrogant, but likeable Garrick; Jenny Gallloway as a put-upon stage manager; Micah Balfour as Foote’s quietly loyal dresser. Together, they paint a vivid picture of theatre people in the Georgian era, their dedication, their rivalry and, above all, their camaraderie. Tim Hatley’s compact, quickly transformable sets and his carefully detailed costumes are also admirable. A sell-out run here makes a West End transfer likely; Will the Theatre Royal Haymarket be available?
Performance date: 22 September 2015