*The new production of Morgan's The River Line opened at the Jermyn St Theatre in London on Oct 4-6, and will run to Oct 29.
Here is what The Times (Libby Purves) had to say:
Charles Morgan was once an acclaimed author and Times drama critic, though too earnest for some: his obituary said that “beauty of diction, dignity of thought, fineness of intuition” do not add up to “the throb of life”. One critic called this 1952 work “so dignified it hurts”. Morgan sadly wrote: “The sense of humour by which we are ruled avoids emotion, vision and grandeur of spirit as a weevil avoids the sun”. Under Anthony Biggs’s direction, this marvellous play demonstrates how seriousness, too, can thrill, particularly when teamed with a tense wartime tale.
Revelations unpeel right to the final minutes, entwined with profound reflections on war, duty, love and death. The first and third acts are set in a postwar country house as Julian and his French wife, Marie, welcome Philip, an American who hid with him in Marie’s granary four years earlier while her Resistance group organised their escape. That ended in a dark, necessary deed, which even now the couple cannot discuss: “We love each other across the silences.” Philip, however, wants to tell his new girlfriend everything.
That past unfolds in the middle act, transporting us to a claustrophobic loft where the men hide with the charismatic officer “Heron” and a nervous young pilot. One of them may be a German infiltrator. We see their preoccupation with leaving no traces, burning papers and disguising the common bowl and spoons as dusty junk: the irony is that the mental scars will not so easily be erased. Back in 1947, the play ends with the difficult acceptance that, as Marie says, each of them “bore their responsibility in the predicament of the world . . . A man does not have to be base to be your enemy”. Its glory is that the fascination of Heron is not because of his fate, but who he was: a rare spirit of luminous serenity. And, as Julian says, this is “a world of lonely animals . . . a desert, until we build ourselves a roof”. The roof is love.
All the performances are good, especially Lyne Renée as Marie: steely and professional in the Resistance, restrained and wise in 1947. Lydia Rose Bewley, of The Inbetweeners, plays Philip’s girl too much on one note, but handles a difficult final soliloquy with heartshaking sincerity. Morgan’s credo resonates: a desire to “see in every face/ An innocent interior grace”.
And The Independent (Paul Taylor) said:
Here is the kind of rediscovery at which Jermyn Street Theatre excels. Once renowned as a novelist and a playwright and for 15 years the chief theatre critic of The Times, Charles Morgan is no longer a name to conjure with. But Anthony Biggs's deeply absorbing revival of his forgotten 1952 play, The River Line, makes a strong case for its morally searching power and beauty and could help put this author back on the map.
Beginning and ending in a Gloucestershire country house in 1947, the piece wrestles with the ethical and spiritual implications of a devastating decision taken under extreme pressure in Occupied France during the war. Some reviewers of the original production scoffingly implied that the piece has the air of a bizarre John Buchan/T S Eliot collaboration in which a mini-thriller is sandwiched between bouts of over-rarefied philosophising on the subject of guilt and expiation. But Biggs and his fine cast demonstrate that the troubled soul-searching in the outer acts is, in its subtle, speculative way, just as intense and momentous as the fateful events in the central flashback to 1943. Here, hiding from the Nazis in a cramped granary near Toulouse, a group of Allied servicemen begin to suspect that one of their number is a German spy.
The figure whose spirit mountingly haunts the play is the charismatic young officer and poet, Heron (portrayed somewhat gauchely by Charlie Bewley of the Twilight films). Morgan clearly reveres this character for his gently inspiring serenity and the glowing way he embodies the injunction in the play's epigraph: "We must act like men who have the enemy at their gates, and at the same time like men who are working for eternity".
That double perspective on life informs the play's increasingly mystical conception of responsibility and atonement. A stoic acceptance that we each have to bear our flawed "responsibility in the predicament of the world" is the hard-won, pragmatic wisdom articulated by Lyne Renee's piercing Marie, the French woman who ran the Resistance group. But Philip, the former GI, who is played with a wonderfully compelling emotional transparency by Edmund Kingsley, comes to take the Greek tragedy view that even the sins we commit innocently or ignorantly demand expiation. Only the dead, though, have the right to forgive. Lydia Rose Bewley performs the climactic speech, where Heron communicates through her, with a quiet, shattering ardour that, like the play itself, puts you in profoundly persuasive contact with the operations of grace.
And here is our review:
WARNING: THEATRE FOR ADULTS
Having lived with the works, including the plays, of Charles Morgan for over half a century, I was not sure that his dramatic creations would actually work in theatre, still less in the 21st century. When I heard that a small London group, the Jermyn Street Theatre, was taking the plunge and producing the dramatic version of The River Line (1949: previously written as a novel), I was both excited and nervous. Could present-day English actors still incarnate those characters from another age, another England? Could modern audiences sympathise? However, it was not something to be missed; and accordingly I flew from the South of France to London to attend the first preview, on October 4th.
(Imagine how nervous one feels in writing a review of a play by Charles Morgan, the man who as drama critic of the Times reviewed more plays than most of us will see in a lifetime, and did so with keen understanding and in impeccable prose.)
Let me say at once that I spent considerable time, in the interval and afterwards, congratulating director Anthony Biggs and producer Richard Darbourne. They have done an astonishing job, with a roughly 24' x 12' stage in a theatre with 70 seats: they have managed to bring Morgan's characters, his plot and his dialogue vividly alive, to make a full house of adults think and feel in equal proportions, and to inspire a group of talented actors with the play's nervous, intellectual and emotional energy so that the production crackles with human electricity.
The actors, of course, are the ones who actually do it. (The Bewleys, as Web announcements show, were a coup of useful publicity for the producers: whether they are right for this play is another story -- see below.) Christopher Fulford, as Commander Julian Wyburton, while not the tall, commanding figure Morgan surely imagined, is one of the stars of the production. With the power of the unsaid that Anthony Hopkins displayed in 'The Remains of the Day', he combines both an emotional depth and what Morgan would have been happy to see called an essential Englishness that is not only convincing but genuinely moving.
The play's other star is Belgian actress Lyne Renée who, as Marie Chassaigne the French former Resistance agent and postwar wife of Julian, is nothing short of miraculous. I did not think it possible so perfectly, in 2011, to create the physical persona of a 1940s woman -- almost all the attempted imitations ring false. Renée is flawless. Not only that, her emotional range is nothing short of awesome; and all by herself she gives the lie to the criticism I have read here and there that Morgan never created real women, that all his female characters are shadowy male projections. Here is Mme Renée to prove them wrong. From now on I will involuntarily see her face in many of Morgan's women, beginning with the wonderful Thérèse Despreux in The Voyage.
Edmund Kingsley plays Philip Sturges, a young American and very much the foreigner in the group. He does it so well, and so sympathetically, that he reminded me irresistibly of a real American college professor of my acquaintance. If he can remind himself that he is on a tiny stage in a tiny theatre and mute his performance to chamber music, he will be superb. (Someone said to me, 'Yes, but that's the way Americans come over to the British'. True; but Mr Kingsley does his American so well that the effect would be created at 2/3 of the volume.)
A surprising treat is Alex Felton as Dick Frewer. Frewer is in many ways a minor character, young, naive, puppyish in some ways, and a foil for the chief wartime character known as Heron. Yet Felton catches with a rare perfection the mixture of naiveté and perceptiveness, of intensity and inarticulateness, that Morgan gave Frewer, and the real charm and pluck of a now partly vanished public-school type.
'Heron', the beautiful, fascinating, inspiring young officer at the core of the wartime scenes, and in a way the core of the whole play, is played by Charlie Bewley. He certainly has the good looks the part needs, though neither his profile nor his legs might perhaps make people instinctively call him Heron. If he can tense up the performance of that difficult part (it's hard to play without the slightest self-consciousness someone everyone falls for), perhaps by rereading Morgan's long description of Heron in the play's preface; realise that much of it is not explained till the last scene; if he can recapture some of the crisp and tense verbal accent of the time (what is now grossly and wrongly dismissed as 'posh'); and if he can make his lazy good looks work in what is literally a life-and-death situation, he will make a good Heron.
Lydia Rose Bewley, his sister, plays Valerie Barton, the young woman Philip Sturges falls in love with. When she first comes on we are visually startled, if only by her costume, and this continues throughout the play. Her bright red hair hangs loose like a Renaissance Magdalen's and she is given awkwardly short jackets and awkwardly short skirts that neither flatter nor give a period look. If she could get a hairdo as 1940s as Marie, and be dressed in something loose, draped and flattering, she would be stunning. Her accent is marginally better than Heron's, and her voice is a genuinely lovely instrument, much at its best when used with clarity, emphasis and power. She has some of the play's most important lines, and she is on the edge of mastering them. If she can forget all dailyness, all simple chat, and be completely the magical, oddly mystical character the author has given her, she might just push the production over the edge into greatness.
Eileen Page as Mrs Muriven and Dave Hill as Pierre Chassaigne, Marie's father, both remind us happily that there is no such thing as a minor part: they play their supporting roles with authority and charm.
The River Line is, like Morgan's two other plays, theatre for adults. For adults who, while loving the stage, need neither spectacle nor irony; who are also literate and thoughtful; and who enjoy being engaged in those capacities by actors collaborating with, and lending living voices to, an author's urgent conversation with his audience. The play's original preface is a short essay 'On Transcending the Age of Violence'. Such a title, from 1949, may provoke a melancholy and ironic smile in 2011; but in it Morgan explains movingly the origins and the development of the play and of the novel that was, as he says, in effect a study for the play. He also dwells on the characters, notably Heron, who takes on some of the characteristics of Lewis Alison in The Fountain.
The spectator leaves, thoughtful and moved. Thoughtful about the human condition in all its real adult difficulties and glories; moved by the presentation of that condition by powerful young actors and director inspired by that great writer and man of the theatre, Charles Morgan.
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December 2008: Capuchin Classicsis preparing a reissue of The Voyage, with a foreword by Valentine Cunningham, as part of their admirable 'Books to Keep Alive' project. From their website:
‘The Voyage is a story warm with Morgan’s love of France. Set in the Charente country and the Paris music-halls of the 1930s, The Voyage tells of the travails of one man’s quest for love: love for a woman, and love for France.
First published in 1940, The Voyage is widely regarded as Charles Morgan’s finest work. Revived here by Capuchin Classics, and introduced afresh by Valentine Cunningham, this edition makes The Voyage available once more to a modern readership.’
There is one inaccuracy here: the setting is not the 1930s but the 1880s. But what excellent news!
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November 2008: 2 photographs of Morgan's grave at Gunnersbury have been added to the Image Gallery.
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The English publisher and bookshop SCARTHINBOOKS has brought out, in a limited edition, Charles Morgan's collected poems, edited by Peter Holland. See the Scarthinbooks website via our LINKS page.
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Update 6 February 2009: We are now at the 51st anniversary, and this means it is time to go beyond celebrating time and to celebrate the work in more detail. Stay tuned.
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Update December 2010: The 53rd anniversary is coming up, and it is pleasant to see that almost all Morgan titles are available via Amazon. A number of them were reprinted in 2008: A Breeze of Morning and Challenge to Venus by Jorge Pinto Books, Capuchin's The Voyage, and Nabu Press's May 2010 scan of the 1988 Ballantine paperback of The Gunroom. Just about everything else is available in used and collectible editions.
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A review date August 31, 1931 is hardly news, but it seemed interesting to list it here. The New York Times on that date reviewed John Cromwell's film of The Fountain, with Ann Harding, Brian Aherne, and Paul Lukas. It can be found here.
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September 18, 2011: A very exciting piece of news -- London's Jermyn Street Theatre is reviving the stage version of Morgan's The River Line from October 4th to October 29th, 2011. See the advertisement on their website here.
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Rumour has it that there will be a new edition of Morgan's plays in 2012. And indeed there will: Oberon Books is putting out a new edition of The Flashing Stream, The River Line, and The Burning Glass; it will be available as of March 1, 2012. See the announcement here.