Premiered in 1978 at a time when Britain was divided by industrial unrest and enjoying a fatally wounded Government, Plenty is a tale of two periods – 1943-47 and 1953 to 1962.
THE action which is episodic flashes back and forth between occupied France and the England of the Festival of Britain and Suez crisis.
In Susan Traherne, playwright David Hare creates a strong feminist character, but one deeply flawed. Her teenage war exploits create in her a positive vision of the future – hope and prosperity for all.
But she rapidly descends though a strange semi-lesbian bohemian existence to a psychotic mess, unable to cope with life or the people around her. Rachael Stirling gives a stunning performance as the ever-declining Susan, who can find solace in nothing and whose promising life seems totally wasted.
Stirling commands the stage and is on it almost every minute of the production, storming around its bare expanses and pushing aside all who come near her.
Rory Keenan as her long-suffering husband is witty and dry as a self-assured diplomat but soon his surprising windfall wealth becomes the cause of the couple’s eventual downfall “too much money” he concludes, when he no longer has that wealth.
Anthony Calf is outstanding as dry as dust ambassador and later Foreign Office mandarin who feels totally betrayed by the Government Ministers who have lied to him about Suez. Though we and Susan both have a kind of affection for his chicanery, Hare ironically makes him a kind of hero of conscience.
And through the words of a third mandarin – Sir Andrew Charleston (played by Nick Sampson) Hare’s contempt for the manoeuvrings of Whitehall is made explicit. Sir Andrew remarks that when Britain had an empire there were 600 people at the Foreign Office to administer it; now the empire is being dismantled there are more than 6000 engaged in the process.
The sarcasm of the diplomats is matched by Susan’s growing political awareness. She compares the parachuting of troops to the Suez Canal with the allies dropping into 1940’s France “At least we landed in countries where we were wanted” she says caustically.
The playwright has little to praise Brussels for. His characters describe it as a “debilitating place” a reference written 40 years ago that in Brexit Britain raised a big laugh. Hare also talks about the 30 million displaced people wandering across borders in the 1940’s which for sure resonates with a modern audience.
Kate Hewitt directs the play with speed, clarity and vigour and the scenic effects, particularly the play’s finale, are stunning.
On one level Plenty works as statement of Britain’s loss of purpose and position on the world stage and on another as the personally tragic self-destruction of a woman bent on finding meaning where there is none.
Plenty is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until June 29.
Review by Brian Butler