According to Christopher Plummer’s memoir In Spite of Myself, before Barrymore, his one man tour de force, now playing for a limited engagement at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, opened at the Stratford Festival of Canada in 1996, he began to bully playwright William Luce, who was ensnared with producers more interested in finding a “movie star” to play the title role, urging, “If we wait any longer we’ll all be too old.” Indeed, Plummer is now twenty-one years older than John Barrymore was at his death, and yet, he is proving with aplomb and panache that fifteen years ago perhaps even he himself could not have predicted that at eighty-one years old he would still be revelling in a zenith of his career.
Barrymore is a fictional account of the final performance of John Barrymore in the Spring of 1942, as the legendary actor attempts to revive his acclaimed Richard III yet instead drunkenly regales his audience and exasperated prompter with lively tales from his heyday, dirty limericks and sprightly song and dance snippets. John Barrymore, the clown prince of the Barrymore theatrical dynasty, is known, especially posthumously, for his decadent lifestyle, his opulent wit and his tempestuous alcoholism. He began in the theatre, his family’s business, in light comedies before his friend Edward Sheldon convinced him that he was wasting his talent and should try his hand at Shakespeare and Richard III and Hamlet became the definitive roles of his career. William Luce has constructed his play in a very similar manner, one that mixes a frothy Vaudevillian ambiance of drunken jest saturated in tall tales of a resplendent time gone by with the weighty poetry of Shakespeare and an aspiration toward that sort of proud, solemn legitimacy which has become synonymous with the fierce tragic heroes of Stratford.
There is no one better suited to this play than Christopher Plummer, whose mastery of Shakespeare’s language allows his Barrymore to indulge in moments of his former glory, yet all the while, Plummer roots everything, both comic and dramatic, firmly in his vivid characterization of John. We see hints of Barrymore peaking through some of the Shakespearean text, as lines disintegrate into memories or fly from his befuddled mind altogether, but Plummer’s own persona is entirely absent. After treating Stratford audiences to formidable dramatic roles, such as Prospero and Lear, as of late, Plummer’s choice to reprise his role of Jack Barrymore is offering up a very different side to his exorbitantly versatile career. It seems traditionalist and insulting to me, in 2011, for critics to still be insinuating that comedy is somehow inferior to tragedy and to assess that it takes any less skill to execute with as much comic precision and joie de vivre as Plummer is employing on the Elgin stage each night. Plummer knows how to milk a line and deliver it with the perfect wry love of it in a way that you can imagine would have delighted Jack Barrymore right down to his socks. There is a great amount of ego, swathed in ironic elegance, on display of course, but Plummer has also infused this character with an inescapable sense of melancholy, and it eventually becomes apparent that this is, in fact, the dark driving force beneath Jack’s raucous demeanour. Plummer has some beautiful poignant moments amid his hilarious and charming hijinks, especially in his sweet and simple remembrance of how afraid he used to be of the dark stairs leading to his room in the attic at his grandmother’s house.
While Plummer is solo onstage for the duration of Barrymore, he is joined by the offstage voice of his prompter, Frank, played by John Plumpis. It’s clear that the role of the prompter is intended to perpetuate the conceit of Barrymore’s inability to remember his lines, and that the play does not seek to delve too deeply into their relationship, but at times I felt that Plumpis was able to transcend his gimmicky “voice from beyond” routine and to really connect with Barrymore, and those moments gave the play a richness and intensity that I would have liked to see more of. There is a moment where Frank accuses Barrymore of being a coward, which is quite volatile and Frank reminded me of the character of Kenneth Tynan in Orson’s Shadow, a man disillusioned and hurt over the demise of someone who had been so idolized and admired by his generation.
There are several magical moments by director Gene Saks, allusions to the Shakespearean plays Barrymore speaks of and an understated, but nice, mixture of joy and despair. At this moment, after all, Jack Barrymore stands before us at the end of his road and regardless of how gleefully he recounts the parties of the past, it is also sadly clear that the party is over.
One of John Barrymore’s greatest regrets, he said once, was never having the opportunity to see himself perform on the stage. I have a feeling that wherever he is, he is basking in Plummer’s performance with a wicked grin and a bottle of Scotch.
Barrymore plays at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) until March 9th 2011. For tickets, please call 416-872-5555 or visit ticketmaster.ca. For more information visit the website at http://www.barrymoretheplay.com.
Also, as a bit of an aside, Christopher Plummer’s memoir In Spite Of Myself is a fascinating and beautifully written account of his illustrious career. I found his personal retelling of pieces of Canadian theatre history to be especially captivating because there are so few written accounts of the early years of our community here, or indeed, any written accounts of our community at all. I also must tell you that Plummer’s intelligence and heart shines from the pages of his superbly well crafted novel. I highly recommend you read it, and it’s available currently at the Elgin Theatre, at TheatreBooks (11 Saint Thomas Street) and wherever else literature is sold.