<p>Follies is not a happy musical. It is certainly not the typical theatrical production that would be filmed and preserved for eternity. </p>
Follies is not a happy musical. It is certainly not the typical theatrical production that would be filmed and preserved for eternity. Yet, in this at times stunning piece from National Theatre Live, the real strength of Follies (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by James Goldman) becomes radiantly clear through strong direction and cinematography both, illuminating a bleak and poetic text that strikes at the melancholy, bittersweet misery at the heart of the past.
Premiering on Broadway in 1971, Follies has endured a rocky history. The production was stunningly expensive to run in the 70s, partly due to the extravagant stagecraft demanded of the text, and the significant technical challenges presented in its realisation. Those challenges invite problems on multiple fronts: the set must be both dilapidated and become decadent at a moment’s notice; the highly developed, intricate and pastiche-driven score must be successfully married to the more psychological and realist text; and the constant threat of this play turning into a celebration of nostalgia must be kept at bay by a steady directorial hand with a keen focus on the decay and loss at Follies’ heart. In a wonderful achievement, director Dominic Cooke (who also gives a short interview on film prior to the show proper) manages all three of these elements and presents a show that strikes at the heart of theatre, and of American memory, exposing an unpleasant—if lovingly crafted—rot at its core.
The show itself focuses on the first (and last) cast reunion of an interwar Ziegfeld Follies-style show, and on two marriages that sprung from it and that threaten to collapse over the course of the night. Here, the four main leads shine, each presenting breathtaking performances that elevate Goldman’s text past the prosaic. Sally (played with exacting fear by Imelda Staunton) is riddled with anxieties, recalling (and witnessing) her past (or is it present?) love for Ben (Philip Quast, a solid presence who makes the character come alive; no small feat), who himself is taunted by his failing marriage. Her husband, Buddy (Peter Forbes, who makes sense of the character)—a salesman—loves Sally (who does not love him), and has no such love for his mistress, instead choosing to reminisce on what could have been. A variety of supporting roles, some with their own pastiches to present, and all indelibly sketched by the text and crafted by their performers, do not disappoint. Most stellar is Janie Dee as Phyllis, whose acerbic, icy exterior is precisely that: an exterior, constructed even as her past self watches in agony.
Yes, her past self—to just focus on the plot is to miss the point of Follies, which delights in the poetic unsaid of the past, hinting at the true meaning underneath. Ageing chorus boys and chorus girls—all fifty, sixty or older now—intermingle with the ghosts of their younger selves, adorned in off-white textures and dripping with jewels in true Ziegfeldian Follies style. These ghosts show us what was, what could have been—but crucially, Cooke allows the action to be driven by the interaction between past and present, between chorus and ghost. The many particularly breathtaking moments include One Last Kiss, sung by Heidi Schiller (a thrillingly operatic Josephine Barstow) in concert with her younger self (Alison Langer); the Triptych of Rain on the Roof, Ah, Paree and Broadway Baby being echoed in synchronicity by youthful rehearsed ghosts and present day ageing septuagenarians both; and the rapturous Loveland Sequence that concludes the piece, where mental anxieties are laid bare in thrilling pastiche—what 1971 producer Hal Prince called a “group nervous breakdown.” This last sequence, lasting almost 25 minutes, is a highlight of the production, showing Cooke at full directorial strength as each song is realised to perfection, both in a musical sense and in a deeper psychological thrust. Special credit must also go to Vicki Mortimer, the designer, who evokes a haunting, dream-like destruction, hanging in the air with such strength that you can feel it in your chest, on the other side of the movie screen. This run-down theatre always feels on the brink of implosion—feeling that, if not entirely subsuming the viewer, shall be felt and known.
Most significant is the stellar effort in converting a theatrical production to screen in a way that enhances the material and elevates it to a new level of understanding. There is often an energy lost in filming theatre: with no actors in the room, it is easy to lose what makes theatre work. But NT Live preserves that energy, and uses the more mobile and dynamic abilities of film to great benefit, with cinematography and framing in particular being used to full effect in portraying the relation between past and present. The sound mixing—perhaps most important for a piece of musical theatre—was mostly superb, although there were some odd choices that lessened the impact of key moments. However, this is a small price to pay for a filmed reproduction of what is an excellent performance.
This is not a production without missteps. The orchestra, while delightfully delicate in some parts, does falter at moments where it may have been better to forge ahead. The camera work, while mostly effective, does feel lost on occasion when no clear framing angle presents itself, alternating between multiple shots with no clear intent. But, these are nit-picks of a show that is extraordinarily directed and performed, the material reaching new, as yet unexplored heights in the process. With stellar performances, a wonderful filmic reproduction, excellent directing and, most importantly, a complex and brilliant score and text that never ceases to reveal new heartbreaks and heighten the experience of the viewer, Follies finds the ache at the core of ageing, of lost opportunities and of the past—and never offers solutions, but instead luxuriates. It’s a delight.
NT Live: Follies is showing at Cinema Nova 17—28 February.