Rattigan’s “Tables” (Up)set at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Well, I couldn’t get away from it after all, even at the theater. Not the protests-provoking Condoleezza Rice visit to Britain, from which, to my relief, business-as-usual Manchester is being spared during my stay there this weekend. The stereotyping, I mean. As I remarked in my previous entry, the English up north are tiresomely prejudicial in their approach to the Welsh. Now, I am not from Wales; but I happen to have moved there. And it is beginning to irk me that I am being subjected to scoffs, sneers, or petty remarks whenever my present residence, which is not readable in my Germanic features, becomes known. Asked for my zip code at the box office of the Royal Exchange Theatre—a compliant response to which one ought to resist rather than give so readily—I was treated to some mild sarcasm, partly encouraged by my generally self-deprecating sense of humor. Perhaps I am too sensitive, but I think a line is being crossed when a salesperson calls you “confused” for having relocated from New York City to Wales.

At any rate (and perhaps at a rather too high one, considering this low moment of high-hatting), I got myself a ticket for a production of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables (1954), which is on at the aforementioned Royal Exchange Theatre until 13 May 2006. The two plays so called are set at a hotel by the sea, just respectable enough to be tolerated by those who have seen better days and affordable enough to shelter them with a modicum of comfort in their waning ones.

The predominantly elderly clientele of the Beauregard Private Hotel, Bournemouth, exchange pleasantries—and unpleasantries—while seated apart from one another at their meals. Among them, the impoverished but stately Lady Matheson, the myopic, horse-betting Miss Meacham, the lonely ex-schoolmaster Mr. Fowler, and the formidable Mrs. Railton-Bell and her mousy daughter (excellently portrayed by Janet Henfrey and Clare Holman, respectively).

Now, the fastidious Mr. Rattigan, who insisted on writing plays of ideas—rather than character and narrative—had the seating arrangements all figured out, providing drawings of the stage with descriptions of each, reading, for instance,

Table (down L): white cloth, cruet, menu, napkin in ring, bottle of Vichy water, tumbler, sauce, table lamp, flowers, soup spoon, large knife and fork, small knife, dessert spoon and fork, side plate, roll, plate of soup, ashtray.

The Royal Exchange production does serve the food—which, if the staff is to be believed, is rather awful (“I shouldn’t have that, if I were you”); but does so with admirable swiftness and little clutter. If the tables are rather less personal than Rattigan prescribes, the isolation and forlornness of the characters and the tensions between them become more expressive, more tangible in an austere setting.

As it turns out, Rattigan’s play is far better suited to a theater in the round like the Royal Exchange than a more traditionally narrative drama like What Every Woman Knows, which I previously saw at the same venue. I felt like sitting at dinner (not at a dinner theater, mind you), at a table way in the back, observing fellow guests. Sure, I only saw the back of Mrs. Meacham for most of the time and did not catch her every word as a result; but I could appreciate the play’s ideas, its commentary on modernity, all the more for it.

Not having found a radio adaptation of this highly successful play, which was exported to America at a moment in theater history when radio was no longer seriously considered as a potential medium for drama, I am trying to imagine how a soundstaging of it could work, with varying levels of volume indicating the distance between the tables. Would the microphone sit in middle of the room? Would it move from table to table, along with the dishes being served? Would it favor any one character or would it eliminate differences in class and fortunes by having the neutrality of volume control?

Now, that’s what I call a play giving me ideas as I continue to think about my own attempts at radio playwrighting.

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