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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 22 October, 2002, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
The Breath of Life
Maggie Smith in

"The Breath of Life" is David Hare's latest play.

Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench play one man's two women who have a lot to discuss.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)


MARK LAWSON:
Tim Lott, this, in form, is a fantastically old-fashioned play. One set, two star, few jokes, few plot twists.

TIM LOTT:
Yes, it is a very conventional play, in many ways, and not quite what you would expect. It looked very unpromising, because there is really not very much plot and nothing really happens, and it's really a conversation going on for the entire length of the play.

But it's a fascinating piece, brilliantly performed. I was absorbed in this completely, from the word go. When it started off, I thought it was essentially a comedy. There are weird reverse links with Mike Leigh in a way, although it's a diametric opposite of Mike Leigh, because these are two highly articulate characters.

Everything is out there, everything is an attempt to rationalise or explore their past or present. But that combination of bleakness and humour is similar. It is very funny.

MARK LAWSON:
It also has odd links with Jeffrey Archer, because one of the things it's saying is that people don't want fiction any more, they just want memoir, one of the themes of the play.

But Hare is also saying, "Nobody wants fiction but I am now going to write a fiction which can't be autobiographical because it's about two women, and you are going to be gripped by it." Were you?

CRAIG BROWN:
I am sorry to say, I wasn't. It started off with bad jokes about Americans and loft conversions and porn shows for OAPs. But West End audiences have paid so much and they have had trouble parking their car, it's such an investment that they are roaring with jokes that we may not have.

I was dying for someone to pull out a gun or something to happen, this incredibly boring-sounding husband Martin, who is this enigma, just to pop up or someone to put on a funny hat. Just anything.

Obviously you can have Beckett plays where there is a resonance, two people reminiscing about the past, or even Pinter. But Hare's dialogue was so dull, it felt like a boring radio play, like The Archers or something.

MARK LAWSON:
I convinced myself the man was under the patio, but I watch too much Brookside!

BONNIE GREER:
The performances were pristine because it's who they were. In the middle of it I was thinking I wish some producer or writer was woman or man enough to stretch the two actors, especially Maggie Smith. She is gorgeous and brilliant, but I wish someone would take her to another place, where she needs to go.

If you have never seen Maggie Smith or Judi Dench before, this is a real treat, but Maggie does this a lot. I was sitting there taking some notes. I have always considered Hare pretty overrated. He has had a very lucky career, because he has come up in a time when there were studio plays. Hare did a lot of those plays.

He worked with directors who believed in him. He has had a very canny career, a very precise career. But, to me, he has never had the intellect of Tom Stoppard, never had the play-making ability of Alan Ayckbourn.

MARK LAWSON:
Bonnie, it can't just be luck.

BONNIE GREER:
Hang on, this is called a career, and this man is actually a boulevard writer with knobs on, and this is another example of it.

MARK LAWSON:
Racing Demon is not a boulevard play...

BONNIE GREER:
I don't know how much you have seen of David Hare. Racing Demon is a great play. That's the best one he has ever done.

This is a pretentious, self-serving piece of work, that actually, from our so-called chief intellectual playwright, what do we get? Cheap jokes about Americans and a "where have all the flowers gone" whinge?

TIM LOTT:
These points about the cheap jokes in the first half hour are right, but it gets better as it goes on. I have seen Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, but not often.

Normally, the way I watch theatre is I am watching the person speaking. But I spent a lot of time watching Judi Dench react to the person speaking. She had plenty to say.

MARK LAWSON:
I thought it was like watching Borg/ McEnroe, there was this fantastic display of technique between the two of them, like great tennis.

BONNIE GREER:
That's not the theatre. That's an acting demonstration. We are talking about a play.

TIM LOTT:
But there were themes in this play.

CRAIG BROWN:
Maggie Smith is a good comic actress, Judy Dench a great tragic actress.

BONNIE GREER:
You guys are talking about acting styles. This is the theatre.


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