Roger Allam Leonard
Bryan Dick Martin
Oliver Hembrough Douglas
Charity Wakefield Kate
Rebecca Grant Izzy
Terry Johnson Director
Arrived at the Hampstead Theatre on a maiden visit, travelling some 165 + miles from Sheffield to see this production of Seminar. I have never read any of the Playwright Theresa Rebeck’s work previously, despite having a solid background in the reading ofAmerican Literature. I knew Alan Rickman played the role of Leonard in the critically acclaimed production of Seminar at the Golden Theater, on Broadway, in November, 2011/2012. Roger Allam was a major motivation for me to see this play.
The Hampstead Theatre impressed me immensely~being extremely well designed throughout and having a rather innovative staircase which circumnavigates the building.There is a tremendous open feeling to the design allowing the theatre goer to explore places that hitherto other theatres may not allow~ the black/white portraiture which adorns the walls of the upper level of previous plays/actors and the history of the theatre are a bonus. Hampstead is an intimate theatre and really, there is n’t a bad seat in the house from my perspective~I was seated in the Circle P15, central position and had excellent unimpeded views. Hampstead also was the winner of the 2014 Theatre Of The Year London Stage Awards.
Seminar follows four young writers — Kate, Martin,Douglas, and Izzy and their professor, the once renowned novelist Leonard who has seemingly fallen on hard times having been disgraced as a plagiarist (according to Grapevine news from Douglas) and who now comes across as a self-centred and condescending #Fuckwit who rips into his student’s work with gay abandon, literally throwing their work on the floor! Jane Austen comes in for some sharp comment to Kate~ ‘Jane Austen!’~ Leonard exclaims~’You must write like Kerouac’ which insults Kate who Leonard also calls a feminist and a lesbian. (Jaysus) ~ the stereotypes abound…The Set looks plush, comfy armchairs, rugs and a central fireplace draw the viewer in and we later learn this is a New York Upper West side apartment.
We learn fast that Kate (Charity Wakefield) is the wealthy one with talent but lacking confidence. Leonard gleams the first page of a short story Kate’s been working on for the better part of a decade and then stops, pronouncing it, as “relentlessly talent-free” and not worth another minute of his time’. When Kate accuses Leonard of failing to read far enough to identify her narrator, he barks, “Don’t defend yourself. If you’re defending yourself, you’re not listening. I do know who your narrator is. She’s an over educated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything and who has nothing to say, so she sits around and thinks about Jane Austen all the time. I don’t give a shit about that person.” The other students jump to Kate’s defence, but Leonard’s wise to it~ “You’re all going to be nice to her now because her story tanked. But you’re not in this together. And trust me, you wouldn’t think the story was so great if it really were any good. If it were really good? You’d fucking hate it. Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats’. Roger Allam really does wring every syllable to the max. The one liners, it’s true, are a joy to behold, Leonard calls Kate;~ ‘A regular little Emily Dickinson, without the charm’.
I did initially baulk at Leonard speaking with an American accent. We have an actor here, with perhaps one of the most distinctive English voices with cadences so deep, melodic and rich, that few could even dare to compete with him and yet, we do not use it in the play. When Alan Rickman trod the boards of Broadway, he retained his English accent and I think this would have added another dimension to the play~ we have missed a trick here and I for one was baffled as to why it was n’t changed? I guess that was the Director’s choice? Roger Allam’s timing is second to none. The weighty pause, the killer line all expertly delivered and yes, even the ‘raised eyebrow’ and that ‘direct’ gaze which somehow undoes every female he looks at….(myself included)
Douglas, (Oliver Hembrough) is the pretentious idealist , the impressionable one , who ‘interiorises and exteriorises everything ??? He is, according to Leonard ~ ‘A name dropping whore who would fare well in Hollywood’ ~ #NICE. He never fully develops as a character for me and is never prominent enough in the play to flesh out his potential or otherwise. .
Izzy (Rebecca Grant) irritated the hell, out of me~ the sexual predator who knew she was a crap writer and paraded the stage in mini skirts and at one point whips her #boobs out, just for effect. Some of the male older generation sat all around me had to readjust their pacemakers!
Leonard can’t praise the sexual content of her written piece more highly~#sniggering as to what this might imply for his future dalliance. Izzy proceeds to bed both Leonard and Martin. Why?~ because she can ~ it ‘s something shes good at. Whether it has any influence is questionable. She may try to influence Leonard to court favour and perhaps he might throw a morsel her way….? but sleeping with the enemy~ makes little sense.
Martin(Bryan Dick) embodies the working class stereotype~ he’s made himself homeless to attend these classes and he is n’t ready to share his work and who is goaded by Leonard as a ‘Pussy’~ #Soft. Martin, of all the writer’s is the one who challenges Leonard and challenges the beliefs of these white-collar rich boys and girls. Not unsurprisingly, it is his work, that attracts praise from Leonard in the final act. There’s a heap of guilty nostalgia for the nineteenth-century novel in Seminar, and Martin sits well in the Austen genre. He’s the irritated genius with suppressed emotions and a surprisingly tender artless simplicity beneath his external bravado.
Rebeck within the subtext implies writers will go to extraordinary lengths to crawl all over each other in order to succeed and yet she settles for easy laughs. Revelling in the depressed Kate consoling herself with cookie dough and ice cream ~ every girl’s dream date! rather than exploring her most complex character’s consciousness. It’s true Kate comes back with a plan using a pseudonym to get her writing heard..(as a Cubano transvestite) but succumbs to the easy lay~ something I found almost incomprehensible~ Kate appeared to have principles and be the chief protagonist only to cave in at the final hurdle~it seemed almost unrealistic Kate settling for a ghost writing job and that Leonard had done her a favour…I did n’t buy it.
Rebeck certainly seems to be addressing the inequality of gender politics. Ms.Rebeck’s literary name-dropping makes the point even clearer. Famous male writers are in abundance~Jack Kerouac, Tobias Wolff, Salman Rushdie ( he, of Kafka’s Motorbike) and when female authors get approval, they are disturbing ones~ Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson… To call someone a female is not a positive comment in “Seminar,” where the gender insults fly fast and furious. There’s slang for female genitalia, and “whore” echoes when Leonard explains what’s wrong with a story by the fourth student, Douglas. “Feminist” is another derogatory term — unless, as Leonard points out to Martin about Kate;~
“You catch one, when she’s right about to pop, it’s like, I could n’t get her to stop.”
As “Seminar” moves from comedy to relationships, Leonard never gets his just deserts. Amazingly, his politics become the play’s politics.The last 10 minutes of the play see Martin and Leonard banter words across Leonard’s study where we discover he has a script in his desk drawer that Martin says is really good and here we see a trajectory in the play where the teacher pupil roles are almost reversed~ Leonard’s work is good but he has been so shut down by the literary scene and his experience that he, the Master is loath to have his work on display. It was probably the first time, I felt something like empathy for Leonard as throughout most of Seminar he had so successfully portrayed the #louche bastard’ to perfection. He, after all, was not…
“A soul-sucking waste of words’.
I did feel that Act 2 was stronger than Act 1 where the audience glean more about Leonard’s own weaknesses and the play began to develop more emotional complexity. Some of Rebeck’s work lacked substance, in parts, particularly in the stereotypes of Douglas and Izzy who, to my mind, were not as fully developed as their counterparts. I was very impressed with Bryan Dick’s performance and I thought his character was believable and Charity Wakefield threw everything in to her scenes of wailing into a depressed state akin to Bridget Jones’~All By Myself and ultimately I wanted to kick her ass for going against every principle she held dear. We are taken through a whirlwind of literary angst with smart and snappy one liners hitting the spot in Seminar and yet, I felt the play needed more creativity in the writing and it is for this reason I give the play 3.5 stars. I will say however, that there is much to flesh out in the subtext from Rebeck, but you have to look closely at the signifiers’ to find out her message.
Outstanding Performance ~ Roger Allam
Prior to seeing the play, I viewed an exhibition at the V &A called ‘Disobedient Objects’ and a display struck me there as having a strong message and with this in mind I leave you with this powerful image~ which made me reflect on the politics of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar
Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?
Less than 4% of artists in the Modern Art sections are female and 76% of the nudes are female.
Surely, there’s a message in there somewhere…