Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2004.
If you did not see this show during its November/December run last year, I would encourage you to go. It is a delightful play – funny and profound – with excellent central performances by Tina Packer and Diane Prusha. My only warning to you is that it is long. It runs three hours with two intermissions. This is not the fault of the actors or director Eleanor Holdridge, but of playwright Peter Schaffer, who has used the captivating character of Lettice Douffet as a way to hold the audience’s attention while he rails about everything from ugly British architecture to stifling work environments, and celebrates everything from Shakespeare to Tudor cuisine.
The Spring Lawn Mansion is the perfect setting for this show since the first act calls for a grand staircase and the mansion just happens to have one with enough room at its foot to seat and stand an entire audience. You feel as if Shaffer wrote the play with the house and Packer in mind.
I sat next to a woman who had seen the show on Broadway with Maggie Smith as Lettice, and realized as we spoke that it was difficult for me to imagine anyone other than Packer in the role, including the great Dame Maggie. There is something in Packer’s exuberance and energy that I cannot imagine anyone as thoroughly British as Smith possessing. Packer is herself British, but has lived on this side of the pond for many years. Perhaps it was her mixture of British lunacy coupled with American bravado that appealed to me. Or perhaps I am just a typical Yank who likes things her way or not at all.
In the play Lettice Douffet (Packer) is a creative and energetic woman “of a certain age” who adores theatre and history and has a hard time keeping the two separate as she gives tours of Fustian House, which she claims is the dullest stately home in England. The word “fustian” means “pompous or pretentious talk or writing” and there was also a real John Fustian, who was a yeoman-merchant in Wiltshire, England in the 16th century, making the name of the house both plausible and appropriate to Lettice’s shenanigans therein.
When Charlotte “Lotte” Schoen (Prusha) of the personnel department of the Preservation Trust gets wind of Lettice’s embellishments on the decidedly dull true history of the House, she calls her to her office in London for an official sacking. During this encounter we learn more about Lotte and briefly meet her dithering secretary Miss Framer (Catherine Taylor-Williams). Never at a loss for a theatrical exit, Lettice compares herself to Mary Queen of Scots headed to her execution and makes a dramatic on-stage costume change to heighten the effect.
The following scenes take place in Lettice’s London flat. The daughter of a flamboyant thespian, Lettice spent her childhood touring with her mother’s all-girl troupe who performed Shakespeare in French throughout France. Lettice was in charge of the props, and her house is still filled with them – including thrones, swords, axes, and a delightful severed head on a pole. The real-life analogy between Packer as the “mother” of a Shakespearean company and Lettice as the daughter of such a woman adds greatly to the audience’s experience of the play. Packer embodies the passion Lettice expresses for theatre. I found particular insight when Packer delivered Lettice’s third act line “Without danger, Mister Bardolph, there is no theatre.”
Lotte comes to Lettice’s flat to deliver a letter of recommendation and inform her of a job opportunity suitable to her talents. In celebration, Lettice produces a jug of “Quaff,” a faux-Tudor brew of her own concoction which contains, along with vodka, an herb called lovage. Thoroughly sloshed after a few glasses, Lettice and Lotte bond and become friends.
In the third act we find Lettice accused of attempting to murder Lotte with an axe. Her lawyer, Mr. Bardolph (Andrew Borthwick-Leslie), who she selected from the list of pro bono attorneys presented to her after her arrest on the strength of his Shakespearean name, is in turn horrified, perplexed, and captivated by her story, which Lotte adds to upon her arrival. I won’t give away anymore of the plot, other than to say it involves a cat and that Lettice is acquitted.
One thing I pondered as I drove home from the theatre is why Shaffer titled this play Lettice and Lovage. Certainly it is a vegetarian sort of title, Lettice herself remarks on her name sounding like that of a rather bland vegetable, but the herb lovage seems to play a fairly minor role in the proceedings. The title must be looking at the proceedings through Lotte’s eyes and seeing Lettice herself and the lovage in her quaff as two key ingredients to the major change she makes in her life.
It is easy to be overshadowed by Tina Packer, and Shaffer has definitely created a star vehicle in the role of Lettice, but Prusha, a founding member of Shakespeare & Company, holds her own beautifully. Her Lotte Schoen stands up admirably for the rights of those who like to wear grey and abjure all things theatrical. If we all went around leading our lives in scarlet red and bold face type, what would the world come to?
Taylor-Williams and Borthwick-Leslie are mainly comic relief. Borthwick-Leslie gets to play a classic British twit, and Taylor-Williams is all broad strokes as the clumsy and timid Miss Framer. This is not to say that they aren’t fine performers. I would encourage you to return to Spring Lawn in the fall to see Taylor-Williams reprise her role as Vita Sackville-West in “Vita and Virginia.”
The other important performer on the stage is Packer’s own cat Isis, as Felina, Queen of Sorrows. She is a beautiful animal, and seems amazingly calm being dragged out under the lights in front of all those people. She and Packer must have a formed a solid bond over the years for her to feel safe in her mistress’s arms even under such alarming conditions. I understand that there is a toy cat who understudies the role for days when Isis isn’t in the mood, but I hope you have a chance to see this great feline actress in person when you attend.
I purposely did not look at my November 2003 review of this production before writing this one, for fear that I would focus on a comparison to the past rather than an evaluation of the present, but I did note that Packer’s costumes, credited to Govane Lohbauer, seemed much more comfortable, practical, and attractive this time around. I have a memory of them flopping and falling off last fall, and no one looks or feels their best when their clothes are running amok.
People who know me personally have remarked on the strong resemblance between me and Ms. Packer as Lettice. One went so far as to say, “She’s playing YOU, Gail.” I pointed out to the speaker that that was impossible, since neither Mr. Shaffer nor Ms. Packer have ever met me. I am not sure how I feel about being compared to an axe-wielding wacko, although some actors I have reviewed would have no trouble with that analogy. But it is very flattering to be compared in any way to the inimitable Ms. Packer, a woman who I admire greatly on and off the stage. And if I am half as entertaining as Lettice Douffet, that is good as well.
Lettice and Lovage runs through September 5 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs three hours with two intermissions and will be enjoyed by ages 8 and up. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004