I just read that British actor Richard Briers died today at the age of 79. This might not mean much to most Americans, but there's a timely reason for mentioning it.
But first it's worth noting that he was an extremely popular actor in England, particularly through a beloved sitcom, The Good Life, which was re-titled, Good Neighbors, when shown in the U.S. on public television He joined Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company and appeared in many of Branagh's films, including Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry V, Peter's Friends and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. If you've even seen the animated film, Watership Down, based on the popular novel about rabbits by Richard Adams, he did the voice of the rabbit Fiver. And Briers also appeared in several stage comedies by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn -- starring in Absurd Person Singular, Absent Friends and Relatively Speaking.
It's for his stage work that I mention all of this.
Yesterday, I wrote about Tom Stoppard receiving the Writers Guild of America's Laurel Award for Screen. At the time I posted it, I thought about mentioning that I'd seen a Stoppard play while a kiddling in London years ago on a family trip. But since it was a lesser-known act-act production and a bit off topic, I let it slide. Well, there's no need to let it slide now, because it's spot on. Talk about timing.
The play was The Real Inspector Hound, and one of the two stars was -- Richad Briers. (The other, incidentally, was Ronnie Barker, who more Americans might know of through the very popular comedy shown here for years on PBS, The Two Ronnies.) To show you how much I loved the play, I still have the poster hanging in my home!
I remember going to it alone, because my folks wanted to see another play that same night. I'm glad that I went off by myself. (My brother didn't join us on this trip, he was a counselor at summer camp that year, leading canoe trips.) I'm glad I went because The Real Inspector Hound was absolutely hilarious and totally absurd. And Briers and Barker were terrific in it. At its foundation, the play is a parody of Agatha Christie, and more specifically her eternally-running play, The Mousetrap. But being Stoppard, of course, it goes far deeper, and also delves into art, the meaning of life, reality, and is a devastating shredding of critics.
Briers and Barker play reviewers who are seated in a platform of rows at the back of the stage, musing bitingly about theater, actors, fellow-critics, and their lives. Eventually, the murder mystery they're to review starts on the stage in front of them -- and as it goes on, these two critics keep commenting harshly (and hilariously) on the action they're watching. Then, it's intermission in the play-within-the-play -- but soon, a phone on stage rings. And keeps ringing endlessly. Finally, one of the critics can't take it any more and goes down on stage to answer it. And the moment he picks up the phone...the play starts up again, and he's now in it.
I won't say any more, so as not to give anything away, in case you ever see it. (I say that laughingly, since one of the things Stoppard makes fun of in the play is keeping "surprise endings" secret.) But suffice it so say that Real Inspector Hound gets even more absurd with hilarious and quite dramatic twists and turns. And is monumentally clever. (Anyone who can't bear not knowing what happens, send a note and I'll give you the "spoiler"...)
Though Stoppard was wildly successful, and his plays usually came to America almost immediately, The Real Inspector House didn't appear in New York (off-Broadway) for several years. That's because it was only a one-acter, and as you'll note at the bottom of the poster, it was paired with a comedy called The Audition -- a wonderful play, but not written by Stoppard (rather, by Sean Patrick Vincent). It wasn't until Stoppard wrote another one-act play, After Magritte, that his two one-act plays transferred together over to the U.S., and that tends to be how they're now performed.
(By the way, The Audition is about three young writers auditioning their musical for a producer who, in a bit of clever staging, sits in the first row of the balcony with the real audience. I happened to be sitting in the first row of the balcony as well, but on the other side. The play was extremely funny, though I only remember one line. It came in the middle, when one of the aspiring playwrights mentions that a character in their musical comes from a particular area of London. Let's say it was Ealing. The producer, who has been annoyingly interrupting the whole time, interrupts yet again to ask, "Excuse me, but is it the Jewish section of Ealing?" By this point, the hapless writers completely have grasped the many prejudices of the producer and quickly answer, "Not necessarily.")
But back to Richard Briers. I so glad I got a chance to see him live, on stage in The Real Inspector Hound. I'm sorry he's gone, but he had a great career, and it's there on film and video to last a long time.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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