Culture: Recruit comes home in style; The new Lichfield Garrick is officially launched tonight with a comedy classic written in the city nearly 300 years ago. Terry Grimley meets the star and director.
Corin Redgrave and director Annie Castledine have been hard at work in the rehearsal room all day on George Farquhar's classic com-edy The Recruiting Officer. Now, relaxing in one of Lichfield's smart new restaurants, they are reflecting on the play.
'It's very, very fascinating and a discovery for all of us,' says Redgrave. 'For all I might say about having read the play before and read a lot about its background and history, it constantly surprises me. And every so often, as I did today, you come to a stop and say 'What is Farquhar doing here? What is he up to?'.
'We know why we like it, why we want to do it, but the rehearsal room is a place of constant discovery. I suspect that's because it's a very great play that doesn't reveal itself in one moment.
'It's a comedy, but it's not remotely formulaic. There are moments of great seriousness and touching reality in the middle of what is sometimes quite wild comedy. This is why you have to take the text apart and say 'What is this about?'.'
'It's so humanly observed,' adds Annie Castledine. 'It's a comedy but a political comedy. Even though Britain seems to be at its most confident, at the beginning of a huge glorious era, there is a sense of unease. Farquhar's disquiet and sympathy for the working class comes through. Even though we are amused at what happens to them, I think underneath it he's saying 'This is the way it is'. Their lives are completely fractured by the arrival of the recruiting officer.'
The Recruiting Officer was almost an inevitable choice for the official launch of Lichfield's new theatre, the Garrick. It was written in the town in 1704-5 when Farquhar was himself working as a recruiting officer. Later it was the first play to be produced by one of Lichfield's most famous sons, the actor David Garrick (himself the son of a recruiting officer who was born in Hereford when his father was working the same circuit Farquhar had done).
'Farquhar recruited in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire -a series of towns in this area,' says Redgrave. 'It would be interesting to know why the West Midlands were regarded as such fertile ground for recruiting.
'The play draws very deeply on the experiences Farquhar had while recruiting. We can identify many of the characters in the play with people living in Shrewsbury at the time. It's a very unusual thing for a playwright at that time -he's dealing directly with his experiences as he moves around the country.'
Like so many writers of classic English comedies Farquhar was an Irishman, a native of Londonderry who abandoned Dublin's Trinity College for the stage, but then gave up acting after seriously wounding a colleague in a stage fight.
He began writing pays with Love and a Bottle, followed by The Constant Couple and The Twin Rivals, but his reputation rests chiefly on The Recruiting Officer and its only successor, The Beaux Stratagem. He died at the age of 30.
Annie Castledine describes The Recruiting Officer as a huge canvas.
'It's a very rich play, very episodic. There are five acts and several scenes in each act. Part of the job of directing it is how you try to weave all the threads together, trying to keep them in the audiences' mind while keeping one in the foreground.
'There are some wonderful roles in it. We have a group of young performers who don't have a lot of preconceptions as far as Farquhar is concerned, so it's like a new play.' The other project on which Redgrave and Castledine are collaborating at the Garrick actually is a new -or at least newish -play.
Maureen Lawrence's Resurrection a two-hander teaming Redgrave with Jeffery Kissoon, is the story of yet another 18thcentury Lichfield celebrity, Dr Johnson, and his heir Francis Barber.
Barber was entrusted to Johnson's care by a friend, the disapproving son of a plantation owner who believed Barber to be his half-brother.
Castledine is a strong champion of Maureen Lawrence, whose play Twins was staged by Birmingham Rep a few years ago, having appointed her writer in residence when she was artistic director of Derby Playhouse.
'Maureen is a writer who writes whether or not anyone is taking an interest. She's a driven writer, not one who is driven by market forces. This play was taken up by Paines Plough and done at the Bush Theatre in London. The script won an award, but the production was not a success.
'We made a commitment that if that if ever an opportunity presented itself we would work together on this play.'
Johnson's willing adoption of this strange black youth is much to his credit, but his dying words of advice -'go to Lichfield -they will look after you there' -were to prove sadly wide of the mark.
'Barber was unaware of how rapaciousand hostile society really was, and he was very easily fleeced,' says Redgrave.
'Dr Johnson was over-protective. He probably made more money writing than any man had up to that time, which is not to say a great deal, but it was substantial. It would have seen Barber through had he been a more worldly man.'
'People were awful to him,' adds Castledine bluntly.
But she does not believe this will mean the evening will be uncomfortable for the Lichfield citizens of today.
'It's a comforting evening because of the care Johnson felt for this strange boy,' she says. 'The play can perhaps lead us to a place where we might want to be. Then I think theatre transcends any kind of craft and becomes what I think theatre should be, a soul food.'
The Recruiting Officer opens tonight and runs until September 27. Resurrection runs from October 2-18.
Annie Castledine and Corin Redgrave have been fascinated by The Recruiting Officer