Monday 16 December 2019

Theatre: Controversy and Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt

Actress Alison Skilbeck stars in the play, Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London
Actress Alison Skilbeck stars in the play, Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London

Emer O'Kelly

WERE she alive today, Eleanor Roosevelt would be acclaimed as an extraordinary, inspirational human being. That she achieved what she did as the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, and went on in old age to have a part in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (among other achievements), is breathtaking.

It is all the more so because Eleanor was born the child of privilege; and in her day, privileged women did not achieve – they became good wives and mothers, shadows of their husbands.

Eleanor was different: she campaigned for workers' rights, for women's rights, for black equality rights. When her husband was crippled by polio before he was 40 years old, she became his legs, and sometimes his eyes, as he once said. She went into factories and down mines, undertaking a punishing schedule of engagements, relentless in her determination that her husband's "New Deal" for Depression-ravaged America would pull the country and its people up by their efforts and their boot-straps.

And when America entered the Second World War, she sent her sons overseas without complaint (unlike her predecessor Mary Lincoln during the Civil War whose emotional blackmail of her husband kept her son out of battle); and she began a whole new campaign for a better world when peace would be established.

Alison Skilbeck's Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London concentrates on one aspect of that marathon – Eleanor's semi-state visit to Britain in 1942, when she divided her time between royal and prime ministerial gatherings, visiting her countrymen in their camps and barracks, and lending her vigorous support to the achievements of the women of Britain, maintaining the Home Front by means of the Land Army, the WVS, and many other services.

It's a fascinating piece, and Skilbeck, under direction by Lucy Skilbeck, gives a bravura performance as she wheels back and forth through Eleanor's brave and troubled life: her husband's long-time affair with Lucy Mercer, her own one-time secretary; her own affair (possibly unconsummated, the jury is still out) with the Associated Press journalist Lorena Hickok who remained a lifelong friend even after she was forced to leave AP when her closeness to the President's wife became compromising; and Eleanor's own sense of failure about how she reared her five children. (They would end up with 17 marriages between them.)

Sweeping achievement as it is, it may seem unfair to carp; but what doesn't emerge in Skilbeck's immensely confident and assured characterisation is just how exceptional Eleanor Roosevelt was for her time. She gives us a magnificent, intellectually aware, passionate campaigner who would be outstanding in the 21st Century; but she does not make apparent the controversy that surrounded Mrs Roosevelt wherever she went, at a time when female, even presidential female, good works involved no more than soup and socks.

There is just one hint: the Ku Klux Klan put a bounty on her head for her stance on black rights, 30 years before a black woman called Rosa Parks refused to sit in the segregated section of an Alabama bus.

It's a joint production between Richard Ryan Productions and Lime Productions, and is at the New Theatre in Dublin.

* * * * *

IT'S OK to be in thrall to laid-back smart-ass violence, verbally and in action. It's worked for an awful lot of theatre/movie writers in the past. But it needs to be so cool it's meeting itself coming back, as it were. And there's an eerily dated feeling to Stewart Roche's Variance, a Timador production at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's Bar on Eden Quay in Dublin.

It's not just that much of the hip language strikes a passé note, which it does. It's that the situation, for all its apparently violent immediacy, seems quaintly of another era. I kept thinking of Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr Goodbar, and that's more than 35 years old.

Housewife Jennifer lives in the "burbs" of New York, her boredom simmering barely below the surface. When she catches her husband visibly enjoying himself while he talks to (presumably) another woman on the phone, she reacts. Dearie, dearie me, how she reacts!

She takes off in her Subaru on a crawl of (presumably) Manhattan bars, exactly the area where she knows through television news reports that a serial rapist/killer is on the loose. And after a series of (unlikely and unbelievably coincidental) encounters, she "meets her fate." Except she turns the tables in a moment which is intended as pure schlock, but doesn't quite come off.

It's all just a tad detached from being convincing, despite a hardworking if somewhat one-note performance by Ranae von Meding as Jennifer, directed by Audrey Rooney and well designed and lit by Janneke Sparrius and Cathy O'Carroll respectively.

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