West End re|Times
h e a t r e
Life Support Review
Simon Gray's "Life
Support" is a study in
self-indulgence that never really gets off the
ground, says JOHN PETER
'An awful effort at nonchalance':
Carole Nimmons and Alan Bates in "Life Support."
Photograph by Mark Ellidge
On its last legs
Note: Mr. Peter had some problems
"Life Support," as you'll see.
In spite of the fact that I like the play very much,
I don't expect it to be to everyone's taste,
and negative reviews are a fact of life
for any playwright or performer.
However: this critic is so confused by the actual content of
the play --
which seems to have confused no-one else --
that I wrote a response, which follows the text of the review.
And following my letter to the Times,
is a letter to me from Simon Gray. [KR]
10 August1997. ONE OF THE hardest things to explain
is why a play leaves you completely cold. In the case of Simon
Gray's new play, "Life Support" (Aldwych), the question
is even harder to answer because it has, on the face of it, quite
a lot going for it.
Copyright 1997 The Times Newspapers
to the review above
It is set in a London hospital room where Gwen Golding
lies unconscious, on a life-support machine. Her husband Jeff
(Alan Bates) is a writer: they were on a trip in Guadeloupe when
Gwen was stung by a bee and collapsed. Technically she is still
alive. You see in the cast list that she is played by Georgina
Hale and you think, surely to goodness she won't be lying there
without a word until the end: so perhaps Gwen will recover.
Enter Dr Pat O'Brien (Frank McCusker), a sharp-eyed
young party who seems to be the representative on earth of Mr
Rolls, the consultant. O'Brien is a master of the meaninglessly
upbeat bedside chat, full of wise saws and the latest instances
of miraculous recovery. The awesome air of clinical efficiency
and noncommittal optimism cannot hide the fact that nobody knows
what to do or what to expect. Gray's jokes are both elegant and
cruel: a combination that gives English humour its characteristically
Bates is completely at home in this atmosphere.
No other actor can wield whimsical humour, flippant brutality
and murderous understatement with such insinuating, subversive
elegance. This is the kind of performance that makes you sit
back and expect an experience, substance, revelation.
The subject of this play is guilt. What cause is
there in nature? Is it me? The Judeo-Christian tradition, which
has made such a first-rate job of shaping our moral natures,
has conditioned us to look behind every untoward event for some
malignant cause. The contributions of Messrs Luther, Calvin and
Freud, together with those of English education, have ensured
that a lot of people find the malignant cause to be themselves.
Guilt becomes a compulsion, almost a pleasure.
Jeff recalls that Gwen used to call him a fraud,
sometimes in affectionate mockery, sometimes almost in earnest.
Why? Because he invented adventure stories sitting in hotel rooms.
But surely, is not that what many writers do? Is having an imagination
a crime? Either way, Jeff and Gwen went off to Guadeloupe to
have a real adventure for his next book. If they had not, he
thinks, she would still be alive. But just a minute: at the beginning
we heard that it was Gwen who insisted on going with him. Has
Jeff forgotten that? Or has Gray? Is Jeff confused? Or is his
author not fully in control of his material?
Soon Jeff begins to hallucinate. Gwen talks to him
from her bed, reminding him of details of their lives together,
his failures, her failures, how they came through. Bates is wonderful
during these deeply contrived moments, keeping sentimentality
at bay with an awful effort at nonchalance. Next, Jeff's secretary
Julia (Carole Nimmons) arrives with some contracts to sign, but
also because Jeff asked her to confess to the unconscious Gwen
that she and Jeff are lovers. This was the moment when I felt
real unease setting in. You can imagine somebody in Jeff's state
of mind fantasising over such a confession, even wanting to hear
it, but not Julia going along with it. The insight that some
people need to make confessions when they cannot be heard is
fine, but the way Gray uses it is preposterous. Unless, of course,
the whole scene is another hallucination of Jeff's -- but that
really leaves you marooned and disoriented. It is not that you
do not believe in people having hallucinations: they do, especially
in moments of great stress, illness or grief. Besides, Jeff's
actor brother Jack (Nickolas Grace) is a liar and fantasist to
a degree that is not far from hallucinating, so perhaps it runs
in the family.
No, the reason why the play finally leaves you unmoved
is that Gray uses hallucination as a shortcut and a cop-out,
a trick to open up a plotless situation and bring into it a sense
of past events. The play becomes a monologue of guilt, real and/or
imaginary, in which the other characters are either props or
prompters and could themselves be unreal. The result is a freak:
a play about guilt which has no moral content. Gray will reply:
don't be so dim, this play is about how Jeff feels, a picture
of his mind. Fine, but what is all that feeling about? Guilt
in the sense Jeff feels it is a moral concept, but how can you
look at it in a moral way if you are not sure which events are
What exactly happened in Guadeloupe in any case?
From the medical point of view the story is ludicrous. A bee
sting that traumatises you actually kills you very quickly. How,
on two bicycles, did Jeff and Gwen get from a remote country
road to a cafe full of people, and how is it that she could still
stand up and drink, let alone have a row with him? Did all this
really happen? And how did he then get to her London? And, though
I will not give away a crucial and shocking piece of narrative,
I have to point out that urinating on a bee sting does not neutralise
the poison, as Dr O'Brien pleasantly suggests. Or is he, too,
a hallucinatory figure?
Harold Pinter directs the play with, in the circumstances,
an astonishing sense of delicacy and precision. This is the seventh
play by Gray he has directed since Butley 26 years ago, and I
wonder whether, in "Life Support," Gray might not have
finally written a play inspired, consciously or not, by Pinter's
work. If so, perhaps he should now direct one of Pinter's plays.
He would realise that hallucinatory effects are not the same
thing as hallucinatory plays, and that the evasions of a character
are not the same as the evasions of his author. Harry and James
in "The Collection" will never know what happened between
Stella and Bill, and the audience won't either; but Stella and
Bill do, and they use this knowledge as a weapon in a power struggle.
Gray's characters inhabit an entirely different no man's land.
Do they sleep or wake? Does Gray? Sometimes there is little to
distinguish between nihilism and self-indulgence.
15 August 97
To: John Peter, The Sunday Times, Theatre
Re: 10 August review of Simon Gray's LIFE SUPPORT
Dear Mr Peter:
I am writing about your negative review of "Life Support."
I have seen the play several times, and reviewed it (in an amateur
capacity--I'm an art director) for an Internet web site.
I'm concerned not because we disagree (like many
of your colleagues, I like the play) but because you have written
a review based in large part on your confusion about the story.
(I didn't detect general audience confusion in June.) Let me
comment on three of your points:
A) You say that it's an overstatement to call JG a fraud
for fictionalizing his adventures.
Gray is aptly named, I've always felt. His best characters are
not heroes or villains: they are fallible humans, caught by him
in medias res. JG isn't living some sort of hideous lie
for making up his adventures, but he feels tainted, knows he
has taken shortcuts.
As Alan Bates says about JG, in his Times interview
with Simon Fanshawe: "JG has chanced through life, taken
the easy route, but been canny enough to turn it into something
successful. It's a play about confronting all that fakery."
B) You say that it was Gwen's idea to go on this trip anyway,
so JG isn't to blame for her misadventure. "Has Jeff forgotten
that? Or has Gray? Is Jeff confused? Or is his author not fully
in control of his material?" and: "What exactly happened
in Guadeloupe in any case?"
You have missed a central detail of the play, and it has coloured
your judgement of the whole. JG's over-rehearsed fiction (which
he relates again and again) about the bee sting occuring while
Gwen has a roadside pee - as opposed to the truth, which he finally
reveals to Pat - is clearly set out by Gray:
· Gwen insists on going to Guadeloupe.
· JG retalliates by putting them through rigors
which he usually makes up.
· While biking in the heat, they stop at a
cafe, and (in spite of the fact that they are both alcoholics)
JG orders beer. They get drunk, have a row, and in the midst
of this Gwen is stung by a bee.
· A "military type" at a nearby
table tries to help. His actions are misunderstood by JG, who
· Gwen is taken to hospital; JG spends a night
in jail (to sober up).
· A doctor in Guadeloupe offers to end Gwen's
life: but JG gets her back to London to Mr Rolls, and simplifies
and fictionalizes his account of the bee sting, to hide all the
guilty secrets: he leaves out the row, the drink, his fear that
he prevented the officer from saving Gwen's life, his last angry
words to Gwen.
C) You are disturbed about the scenes with Julia (who is
JG's literary agent, by the way, not his secretary) and brother
Jack. Hallucinations? shortcuts and cop-outs? Unreal props and
prompters? How can one look at the play in a moral way if one
is not sure which events are real?
As a theatre critic you intuit that Gray is not presenting a
narrative drama that stays firmly rooted in reality. Your explanation
is that JG is hallucinating, and that the secondary characters
are simply there to move his monologue. Mine is that Gray is
employing dramatic license to give us more insight.
Benedict Nightingale calls this play "sardonic
tragedy, black comedy." Gray's exaggerations and excursions
into the absurd, mine areas of our psyches that are untouched
by fact, exposition, straightforward story-telling. He's telling
us that JG would try anything to bring Gwen back. It's
an evocation of his love and desperation, of the foolish gestures
we all have made. (Similarly: the Goldings would undoubtedly,
in real life, have friends. Gray distills the story by removing
them and revealing JG's emotional isolation. And the Jack/JG
exchanges capture a whole lifetime of sibling rivalry between
winner and loser.)
I doubt very much that this play is inspired, "consciously
or not," by Harold Pinter's work. But it's no accident that
Pinter has directed it so beautifully. He is at home with ambiguity,
and knows just how to pull back the curtain and reveal the inner
doings of our messy, contradictory, human hearts and souls. As
do Simon Gray and Alan Bates.
Simon Gray's response
to Rappaport's comments
Of course, great playwrights don't unfailingly write
great plays (though I do think that this is one of Gray's finest).
I'm sure of this, however: Gray and Pinter - whether inspired
or just getting on with it - are incapable of creating and staging
a sloppy and self-indulgent work such as you describe. They are
simply too meticulous, masters of their craft. Gray has written
this play with subtlety and delicacy, Pinter has directed it
with clarity and economy, and Bates delivers, as you say, "the
kind of performance that makes you sit back and expect an experience."
So: "Life Support" glowed with a gleam,
but you were looking away, to paraphrase Thomas Hardy and JG.
I think that you owe it to yourself to see the play again. Let
me know if you find "substance and revelation" on second
viewing, as I did. Even better, let the author and the public
With my best regards.
I'm so sorry that this is such a delayed response - I'm only
just back from nearly a month away.
Thank you for your letter to me, your letter to John
Peter, and your review. The first and the third of these gave
me much pleasure. The second could hardly give me pleasure -
I had avoided reading John Peter and therefore had no idea that
he'd been blankly incompetent, innocently assuming that he'd
merely been ill-disposed.
You deal with him, if I may say so, with perfect
judgement both in tone and in content. I wonder if he's so far
honoured you with a reply. [He has not.-KR] I think I'm
sufficiently insensed to write to him myself. If I do, I shall
keep you informed.
Meanwhile, again my gratitude. Enclosed is a copy
of Breaking Hearts. I hope you enjoy it.
PS. Re Jack. What you describe* is certainly what I intended.
I'm not sure, though, that if I'd been well I wouldn't have found
myself looking at those two scenes again with a view to sliding
into them a touch more obliquely. But there are probably a number
of things I would have looked at closely if I'd been around for
*In my letter to Gray, I had said: "I am curious about
Jack, who has been called a caricature, slimy, manipulative,
one-dimensional. I don't agree. To me, the Jack/JG relationship
is about family: the ties of obligation, loving but not liking,
sibling rivalry. (If Jack is a manipulative loser, certainly
JG is no prize as a brother!) In Jack's second visit, I saw brotherly
duty and an element of sincerity, not necessarily at odds with
his desire to get the cheque. I hope that you intended this ambiguity;
it deepens that long moment of non-connection, makes it even