Every few weeks we read in the news about the death, at 90+ years, of a beloved celebrity or artist. Someone always asks, “Whatever happened to them? I thought s/he was already dead.”
What does happen to these people when they retire? And who better to answer this question than Sir Ronald Harwood, who began his life in the theater in the 1950s backstage and then moved on to acting and writing. His classic The Dresser remains one of the most perceptive and moving of backstage dramedies. His 1999 play Quartet is the current offering at Bristol Riverside Theatre.
The setting is a retirement community for opera singers and musicians in rural Kent, England. Scenic Designer Court Watson creates a music room and outdoor terrace of faded elegance whose slightly bleached portraits of Wagner and Verdi reflect the memories of the inhabitants. This is a house where the beef is gray, the pudding is lumpy, and the mashed potatoes are gone before you get any. The costumes and lighting by Linda B. Stockton and Karen Spahn complete the picture, and Harwood gives each designer a wonderful coup de théâtre at the finale that won’t be described here.
The title Quartet refers to the famous quartet at the end of Verdi’s Rigoletto, as well as the four characters that inhabit the room. Years ago these four once performed this opera. They now greet the CD re-release of the recording with mixed emotions. Age is particularly hard on the opera singer, as its very technique demands total mental and physical commitment along with proficiency. Age eventually withers the body and the voice with it, and these four have been forced to retire. All are lonely and broke – the prices one pays for a life in the arts. Verdi’s birthday approaches. Should they follow the house custom and perform the quartet with what might be left of their art? The mind is willing but the body might not cooperate. And why bother to compete with a renowned recording of your younger self? Would that be powerful or pathetic?
Laural Merlington handles much of the comedy in this bittersweet situation. She plays Cecily, the mezzo, the one who anxiously wants to tell you something important but then can’t remember what that is. Her mind is occasionally sharp, but she tends to wander in and out of reality. The others struggle to keep her from being “sent away,” which is the term for what transpires when a condition becomes too acute. Thank you, Laural, for the humor and insight you brought to the role.
Keith Baker is Wilfred, the baritone with the lecherous wit. Most of what he says is pretty offensive, but we know that it all comes from loneliness and insecurity. Baker is the Artistic Director of the BRT, with a fine career as a performer and opera singer. (I have a special fondness for the memory of Ionesco’s Macbett that he directed and composed at BRT.) Thanks, Keith, for your deeply sensitive performance.
Nick Ullett plays the tenor, Reg, who is the most alert and active of the group. He still reads and contemplates Earnest Newman’s critical writings, and is the organizer of the quartet. He was once married to Jean, the renowned soprano, and the humiliation seethes anew when he discovers the lady is about join the group. His nearly out-of-character tirades about marmalade and mashed potatoes remind us that older people can be eccentric. Or perhaps they always were but now are “only more so.” Thank you, Nick, for a loving portrait of what we opera directors call “a tenor with a baritone personality”.
The arrival of Jean, played by Broadway vet Joy Franz, upsets the equilibrium. The three others were successful enough, but Jean was an actual international star, with the diva attitude to go along with it. She is now penniless, thanks to a late husband who “wasn’t as rich as I thought.” There’s a ton of pain and frustration in Jean and thank you, Joy, for capturing all of it.
Susan D. Atkinson directs with insight and subtlety. Harwood’s script is unsparing yet gentle as he turns the spotlight on every imaginable memory of the aging quartet.
All theater artists contemplate an enforced retirement with fear and resentment. Does it mean sitting in a tiny room alone, surrounded by photos, clippings, and posters of past but now forgotten triumphs? Or does it mean that a life in the arts is one sweetly and powerfully lived?
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.