Role Playing: Joseph Wiens starts at full throttle to convey alienation of ‘Look Back in Anger’
Interview: As playwright John Osborne’s disaffected, fuming young man in post-World War II England, with high-velocity part to master, actor knew he had his hands full. At Redtwist Theatre through June 28.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The first thing Joseph Wiens had to overcome in achieving his electric performance in John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” at Redtwist Theatre was the sheer volume of lines. Well, that and what he calls the “mishmash” of British accents. And of course the machine-gun speed at which Osborne’s teeming language had to be delivered – intelligibly.
“Honestly, I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’” says Wiens of the prodigiously wordy but mesmerizing role of Jimmy Porter, the angry young man in post-World War II England who finds himself adrift and resentful in a changed world that seems to have no place for him.
“Once you’re on stage, the energy flows, but there’s a nervousness that can come out if you’re not prepared. So I did as much work as I possibly could – trying to understand what it was like for this bright, well-educated but working-class guy in England in the 1950s. I had to learn the meaning of everything Jimmy would have experienced in that era, everything he talks about.”
Talks about, that is, in a variety of accents both natural and mocking: Jimmy’s own brand of English, which is neither underclass Cockney nor upper class, and the assorted accents-as-weapons he affects in skewering all the people he loves to hate.
This disaffected young man is one intense guy, and Wiens says director Jonathan Berry cautioned him about not allowing that intensity to flag. There is no rest for Wiens on stage, no breather and no ramping up. From the get-go, Jimmy has to be over the top, as if we’re catching him in mid-thought.
“To get that buzz going, I sit downstairs for 15 minutes before the show starts, literally talking all my lines alone. You can’t get that ball rolling, that energy where it has to be, unless you walk in already in that state of mind. When the play begins, I’m tapping my foot. And between scenes, I’m downstairs doing a mini version of the pre-show.”
Jimmy’s anxious and conflicted life is mirrored in his marriage to a young woman above his social standing, Alison (Baize Buzan), and his close friendship with a chap about his own age, Cliff (Japhet Balaban), who lives across the hall but virtually shares Jimmy and Alison’s apartment in something like a ménage à trois. Cliff comes from poorer stock, a fact that shadows his chummy relationship with Jimmy and Alison.
The play moves – careens, really – along the circular path of Jimmy’s rants against sundry targets: the upper class, what he perceives as the abrogation of society’s promise to reward his education with opportunity (perhaps even advancement into the despised upper class), the loss of a mode of life remembered, even his wife Alison, who only a few years ago was this jewel he snatched from those above him, but whose value has fallen into question.
“I’ve played unsavory characters before,” says Wiens, a widely experienced Chicago actor and ensemble member at Shattered Globe Theatre, “but to berate your wife the way he does, that was hard for me. Jimmy has all this energy and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s wasting his youth. He runs a candy stall during the day, then comes home and sits on the couch and does little but try to get a rise out of Alison or Cliff. He just wants to get a reaction, to affect the people around him. He feels so helpless in the face of the political tides.
“I know people like Jimmy, who could get a job better than the sweet stall, but they want to exact change in the world, to do something good. Jimmy hates the system where he has to answer to somebody. He hates the upper class but wishes he were a part of it. He hates America but envies how that nation is rising. He is looking back at a society that promised him and his people so many things. He is a symbol of youth for a new era — somebody that could perhaps make something of himself. But he doesn’t want to take the risk: If you don’t try, you won’t fail.”
One of playwright Osborne’s key motifs is a game that Jimmy and Alison, now married four years, revert to when all communication between them has broken down. They call it bears and squirrels. Wiens calls it an emotionally safe place they go to preserve what little remains of their connection.
“Their marriage started off as an experiment,” he says, “both of them saying, ‘I’ll show them’ – meaning her parents. The ruffian and the upper-class girl both stick it to her parents, and at the beginning it was enjoyable. The felt they were rebelling. But then they realized their relationship wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“They begin to resent each other. But they can count on this childish game as dumb animals: They don’t have to talk about the world’s problems or even deal with their real-world relationship. It’s a way of masking what’s really going on for a while. Jimmy baits Alison, she doesn’t say anything, then they kiss and play bears and squirrels.”
Wiens compares the empty circularity of Jimmy’s biting harangues to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” and even though this troubled character responds to Alison’s anguish toward the end, Wiens questions whether Jimmy has moved very much from where he started.
“I don’t think anything is different,” he says. “He gets Alison to experience the kind of pain he suffers – and I don’t think he likes seeing that. They are together, but what does it mean? He’s still searching for the thing that will make him happy.”
- Review of ‘Look Back in Anger’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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