16 March 2012
The Man Who Lived Twice opened in Glasgow last week. The new play, performed by Birds of Pardise and written by Garry Robson put Paul F Cockburn in mind of Nancy Sinatra's famous ditty.
"You only live twice, or so it seems/One life for yourself and one for your dreams."
Despite its overt 1930s New York staging, and period music, I couldn’t help but watch Garry Robson’s “fictionalised account” — of the real-life meeting between the actor John Gielgud and the blind, paralysed playwright Edward Sheldon — with Nancy Sinatra singing her James Bond title song in the back of my mind. For this was definitely a story about how we can hide behind the distinctions we all make between our public and private lives.
So we have Sheldon, paralysed and blind, who revels in “the paradise of non-arrival”, remaining above the world in his New York penthouse, playing the role of Oracle to city’s flowering artistic community. He can reach out and touch the world, but never be touched himself; and that is how he likes it.
Then there’s John Gielgud, the classically-trained Shakespearian actor who is the toast of Broadway for his Hamlet, and on the point of breaking the box-office record set by Sheldon’s former close friend, the actor John Barrymore. Gielgud was, of course, gay, but this was a time when homosexuality was illegal. So, though Gielgud exhibits himself on the stage every night before thousands, he has no real personal emotional life worth speaking about. Prissy and stand-offish, he’s afraid of his own shadow, of getting his hands dirty — essentially, he’s so far back in the closet that his posterior is getting cold in Narnia.
Still, as Barrymore said in the film, Twentieth Century: “The sorrows of life are the joys of art.” Both men have, to an extent, benefited from their physical or emotional impairments, but the price has been to deny themselves the affection of real love.
And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on/Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone.
Like many a James Bond super-villain, Sheldon is attempting to reshape the world in his own terms. We almost believe him, thanks to a genuinely charismatic performance from Paul Cunningham, which is all the more impressive given that it’s achieved almost entirely through his voice and a concentrated lack of movement.
The only possible flies in his ointment are: the clinical detachment of his personal assistant Mr Ernst (a sardonic example of restrained silent acting from musical director Ross Brown, who also provides live music on a piano dressed up as a shrine to Broadway); the low-level, unconscious pity of the waspish and overtly theatrical Mrs Patrick Campbell (an amusingly broad performance from Karina Jones); and the inopportune chorus provided by an irritating macaw (also Jones) left to Sheldon by Barrymore when the latter left for Hollywood.
Yet it’s all controllable, a lush, intimate world of black bedsheets, pink petals on the floor and manly nail varnish — until, that is, the random element of the somewhat gauche Gielgud (a genuine Laurie Brown) enters the room, threatening to tear both their carefully constructed worlds down.
Pleasing as whole, the play nevertheless disappoints in some respects; not least the fact that it’s not clear quite what emotional progress or self-realisation either Gielgud or Sheldon have made by its close — nor why Gielgud apparently considered their encounter as one of the most amazing experiences of his life. But then, perhaps we would have needed Gielgud to tell us and, even towards the end of his life, he wasn’t that into sharing.
"This dream is for you, so pay the price/Make one dream come true, you only live twice."
The play tours Scotland until 5 April. All performances are surtitled and audio description support will be provided. Go to DAO's listings pages for details of the tour