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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Sense of Detachment, by John Osborne, Reviewed.

First performed at the Royal Court Theatre on 4th December 1972, this play was published a year later. The copy I have was issued by the publishers as a review copy (the publisher’s slip is still loose within the pages), but not to me. No, I picked it up in a second hand book shop some years later.

That the play’s first performance took place in such an august location says a great deal about the theatrical world’s respect for the playwright at the time. Of course, his ‘Look Back in Anger’ had deservedly set him up as a ‘name’ in the literary world way back at the end of the 1950s. But, whether this play would have received such respect had it come from the pen of a lesser known writer is open to doubt.

The piece is partially ‘improvised’. Much of the intended dialogue is specified but there are passages where the cast is intended to react to the audience, especially where public participation might be encouraged by the antics and words of a couple of cast members placed within that audience. I expect that such risky participation was what drew many into theatre. Certainly, the early dialogue given the cast would be insufficient to garner much in the way of admiration. It’s banal and uninspiring on the page. Performance may well have brought it more life but the text is decidedly flat and lacks the humour that’s clearly intended.
But, as time passes on the uncluttered stage, we’re bombarded with significant comment on social issues of the time. In particular, the Older Woman is given the task of demonstrating the then growing tolerance of pornography and its detrimental effects on women. At the time there was increasing awareness of the way in which pornography objectifies women and portrays rape as not only acceptable but actually desirable, even by the women thus abused. Osborne’s clever use of a mature but attractive woman to apparently enjoy her readings of graphic female abuse is very effective on the page and, I suspect, even more so in performance. The playwright was, of course, very concerned about social issues and he uses the play to highlight many aspects of life that he wants people to think about. I suspect that audiences would leave the performance with a deeper understanding of the destructive tendencies of pornography.

There are aspects of this play that definitely don’t come across in the text. I can imagine that performance would enliven, invigorate and excite the written words to make the whole experience more meaningful and enjoyable. But there are elements of the piece that defy explanation. Many of the passages are drawn from other sources, often obscure, without reference to those sources, so that it’s difficult to know whether a specific point was being made in any given circumstance. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of dialogue and action appears almost absurd; whether this was deliberate and whether it was a theatrical device employed to unsettle what Osborne probably viewed as a complacent middle class audience is uncertain at this distance. The effect on the page is simply confusing, but, again, in performance, it would probably be more effective.

On balance, this is definitely a play to be seen rather than read. But I don’t think I’d be tempted to attend such a performance now. I think the piece is of its time and unlikely to transfer to the modern day in a form that would render it entertaining or thought-provoking. The debates opened here are now well established and no longer bear the rawness and immediacy they would have had at the time of its writing.

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