By Gerald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard
We all love grumpy old men, as long as we don’t have to live with them. And when they’re not our relatives, and are living in another country, and not in pain or bedridden, then we can laugh at them with impunity.
All of which, especially when the play is by a famous French comic writer, translated by verbal genius Tom Stoppard, and acted by three of Australia’s top male actors, gives Jon Halpin’s production of Heroes the potential to raise at least one laugh per minute.
But this is a French play, set in 1959, and underneath all the fun there’s a touch of melancholy, as in the Jacques Tati movies of the same period. And Stoppard the translator is very different from Stoppard the playwright. Here are none of his own dazzling one-liners or his narrative twists and turns, but a faithfulness to the original text that allows it to remains Sibleyras’s play. And there’s still the sobering underlying knowledge that all these old men are doomed – Philippe (Barry Otto) is the most vulnerable, as he keeps losing consciousness and forgetting where he is and was, but Gustave has his own kind of bizarre behaviour, in that he reads and replies to Philippe’s mail, while good old stolid Henri, while providing some stability as the resident who has been there the longest, sees his own frailness and fate echoed in the behaviour of his friends.
So their plan to escape from the iron fist of the Matron of their Retirement Home for the Veterans of World War I is tinged with irony, because they know as well as we do that it ain’t going to happen. But as the Good Book says, although the young men have visions, old men can dream dreams, and if it gives them something to live for, heaven knows nobody can begrudge them their few pleasures.
It’s a simple play – Gustave (Robert Coleby), Henri (Max Gillies) and Philippe, all a little dotty but not quite past it yet, join each other every day on what they have come to regard as their private sun terrace. The view of the cemetery fills their foreground, but a hill covered with swaying poplars dominates the further view. Thus symbolically they look beyond death to freedom, not quite realising that one is part of the other. The only other character on stage is a massive stone dog, which Gustave treats as a living beast, and which has its own surprising part to play in the narrative.
And that’s about it. They plot their escape in traditional military fashion, but forget the exigencies of their situation – where will they get the supplies, and the blankets, and the whole kit-and-caboodle, for example, and do they have the strength to clamber over the walls and carry it all through the cemetery at night, much less make their way up the hill to reach the poplars? But in dreams you can do anything and, as Browning put it, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? And so they plan, and plot, and dream a little, and go on with the routines of their institutional lives, rather like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, although the scenario of their lives is a little richer, and there is somehow a tinge of a hope that might be realised.
The format is quite different from that of most modern plays, but it suits the period and the situation to perfection. Because there’s no real plot development, but just a gradual unravelling of character and motive, it’s like a talking-heads piece that these days would be written for the screen rather than the stage. (Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame , almost as static, were written during the same decade as this play is set.) So it depends almost entirely on the skill of the actors to bring it alive, and in the hands of lesser stars than these it could be a real butt-numbing experience, and one could be tempted to echo Estragon’s heart-felt cry in (again) Waiting for Godot , “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”
But Heroes has more life than this, and as a society we have moved on from the bleak existential vision of the 1950s, of the tedium and meaninglessness of human life. For unlike Beckett’s characters, who come with no past and no future, no baggage and no purpose, these three World War I veterans have all of these things, which gives their personalities depth and meaning. So it matters what they think and what they do, and their dreams matter, too, and in one sense we can be glad that they’ll never be fully aware of the futility of their planned escape.
I can’t imagine any actors, in any country, who could play these roles better. It’s not just their obvious physical differences, which helps to differentiate one from another, but the way they play off and against each other, and make their unstated roles in the triangular relationship clear. Here are three consummate actors at the height of their powers – unlike the characters they play – and they make us care about and even love them, and hope for just a minute that their deluded plans might come true.
For it’s the hope of freedom that gives life meaning.
Director: John Halpin
Designer: Bruce McKinvan
Sound: David Montgomerey
Lighting: Matt Scott
Playing 12 November – 15 December, Monday 6pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm
Duration : 90 minutes, no interval