Mar 262008

I’m starting to become a culture snob, I think. Or maybe just cultured altogether, as it’s become a new tradition that whenever I’m in London I go to the theater. While such outings seem rare occurrences at home, in London it seems to happen more often than not.

On this latest trip I thought I might like to see the London performance of Spamalot. I already saw it in Boston once, but I really liked it and it’s one of the few soundtracks I ever listen to. But then, as I was standing on line to buy tickets at Leicester Square, I happened to turn over the flier on current London theater productions I picked up at Heathrow (a terrific idea to place them there, local tourist board). Felicity Kendall, whom I recognize from Good Neighbors and Rosemary & Thyme, was on the cover, as she is appearing in The Vortex. And Penelope Keith, whom I also recognize from Good Neighbors, as well as To the Manor Born, was playing in The Importance of Being Earnest, a play I sadly seem to like less and less every time I encounter it, which is a pity, as I thought it hysterical the first time I read it.

But then I read on and saw a listing for a comedy called Legal Fiction, starring Edward Fox. Well now! I’ve always liked Edward Fox, at least ever since I figured out who he was. He was one of those actors whom once I noticed I then went on a mini-filmfest to see what else he’d done. In fact, even though I own few movie DVDs, my collection happens to includes Day of the Jackal and Force 10 from Navarrone, two films he starred in. I even saw him in a film production of The Importance of Being Earnest and All the Queen’s Men, with Eddie Izzard and Matt LeBlanc, which turned out to be one of the best films I’ve paid money to see in recent years. (If, like the San Jose Mercury News, you expect a camp farce, you will be disappointed. If, however, you just sit back and let it be a sweet, slightly comedic drama, you won’t be.)

So it seems clear, on review, that apparently I do like Edward Fox quite a bit (despite never having seen him in Edward and Mrs. Simpson, a role for which he is perhaps most remembered, and hardly having watched any of his movies within the past several years), and so when I saw him listed as being in a production of something whose title included the word, “legal,” and whose description included the word, “comedy,” well, I thought to myself, what could go wrong?

Sorry, I didn’t mean for that to sound like foreshadowing. I indeed had a very nice time taking myself out to the theater. I ended up sitting only about six rows back from the stage, which gave me sort of happy goose pimples when Edward Fox came out on stage and started speaking in that familiar voice. It’s always strange to see someone you’ve come to know in two dimensions step off a screen and take on a third in your presence, but I felt somehow privileged to be there and have that happen.

I do, however, have some reservations about the play. It’s really a revival of two separate plays, one for the first act and one for the second. I least liked the second, “Edwin.” On the one hand, I thought it was an interesting character study, pitting Fox’s rigid retired judge against his more artistic and arguably better-rounded neighbor. It’s just that I thought the situation this study was shone against was uninteresting. Perhaps it would have been more culturally relevant back in 1982 when it was originally performed, but today the plot points and ancillary thematic issues it raised seemed rather moot. Or, worse, even an interfering distraction.

In fact, it’s too bad the play wasn’t just updated for the times, because the underlying exploration of the judge’s character still had potential. It seems you could take the judge out of the courtroom, but you couldn’t take the courtroom out of the judge. The judge was incapable of making conversation without cross-examining the subject of his inquiry (apparently in English courts it is much more typical for a judge to examine a witness than it is in America). He cross-examined his neighbor, he cross-examined his wife, he even apparently had cross-examined the dog for losing a bone and the wasps for landing on his food. “Don’t the wasps have a right to be in the outdoors?” questioned the neighbor. “Yes, but with every right comes a duty. They have a duty not to put their bloody feet in my marmalade.” I’m not sure if in the retelling these lines jump off the page with any particular humor, but they worked well in the play with Fox’s terse delivery, and I must say, as a new lawyer convinced that the training has forever altered how I see the world, it was fun to watch someone else so hopelessly and irretrievably situated similarly attempt to force the world through the same kind of legally analytic lens.

Meanwhile, the first act, a play called, “The Dock Brief,” was more solid, although it too is dated. Before legal aid was statutorily required in England, indigent defendants would be appointed voluntary counsel by a judge from among the barristers that happened to have been assembled in his courtroom. Established barristers loathed such appointments, but junior barristers welcomed the opportunity, as with a good case it could help establish their careers.

Such was the set-up for this play, where Edward Fox’s barrister has whiled away his entire career waiting for that one great appointment he thus far has never gotten. He is therefore extremely enthusiastic to have gotten this defendant’s case — an appointment that he later learns was more randomly accidental than providential, as he originally had believed — and pursues its preparation with a somewhat misdirected sense of zeal, his imagination running wild, thinking more about his upcoming glorious performance in the courtroom and less about his client’s actual confessed guilt. In fact, he tends to complain bitterly to his client every time the client informs him of an inconvenient fact — like the fact that he actually did the crime accused — prompting the client to always profusely apologize for making things difficult for him.

Three-quarters of the way through the act, they leave for court, united in their enthusiasm, confidently assured in their thorough preparation. Of course, what had become immediately obvious to all the audience was that this was one of the most inept lawyers ever, but so deep was his confident obliviousness to this fact that it naturally manages to lead to a happy ending anyway.

I did enjoy seeing Fox play these legal figures. He’s good at stiff formality, which is what people tend to expect from barristers and judges. In a way he might have been a little too stiff, though. His characters have to utter a few preposterous lines throughout both plays, without any sense of irony, and he delivered them well-timed and perfectly deadpan. On the other hand, they seemed to get caught somewhere between the actor’s own recognition of their humor and the character’s complete failure to. Not that this tendency was anything too serious, of course — it’s just a minor quibble.

But while I attended the play because of the reputation of Edward Fox, I was most particularly impressed with the other main actor, Nicholas Woodeson, who played two completely distinct characters in each half. Whereas Fox was stiff he was completely fluid, a perfect patsy to Fox’s barrister and a perfect foil to his judge (or at least he would have been had the scene been written more interestingly). Polly Adams was also in the play, appearing only in the second half as the judge’s wife, but I can’t really evaluate whether I liked her performance or not because the whole purpose of her character was so closely connected to what I didn’t like about the scene.

Still, despite these reservations, I feel very enthusiastic towards the playwright John Mortimer. Mortimer, you see, himself is a barrister — in fact, a barrister known for his defense of civil liberties — and someone who didn’t let his legal career interfere with his creative pursuits, or vice versa. He’s written many plays and adaptations, as well as perennial TV characters like Rumpole of the Bailey. As a lawyer myself — in fact, one most interested in civil liberties — who has begun to more seriously dabble in the creative arts, I find his career path inspirational in that he was able to pursue and excel in both avenues, allowing each to inform the other, and both for the better.

 Posted by at 11:01 am

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