Posted on: 15 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A theatre impresario becomes the subject of a play at the National Theatre's Lyttleton auditorium.

It must have seemed like the perfect partnership - one of our finest playwrights, Michael Frayn, teaming up with one of our best actors, Roger Allam, in a play about one of the greatest, although now almost forgotten, theatre impresarios, Max Reinhardt. But the result, I am sad to say, in the form of the two and a half hour drama Afterlife is a major disappointment.

For the first forty years of the twentieth century, Max Reinhardt was a world celebrity, directing some 340 stage productions in his lifetime. His lifelong ambition had been to dissolve the boundary between theatre and the world it portrays.

Each year at the Salsburg Festival he directed a famous morality play, Everyman, about God sending Death to summon a representative of mankind for judgment. The victim he chooses is a man who, like Reinhardt, rejoices in his wealth and all the pleasures that money can buy.

Then in 1938 Hitler declares his own day of reckoning and sends Death into Austria whereupon Reinhardt, a Jew, is left as naked and vulnerable as Everyman himself.

Michael Frayn's play endeavours to tell the story of how Reinhardt achieves his great ambition, though in a way he can scarcely have foreseen.

Yet on seizing a theatre metaphor by using the format of a morality play rather than presenting us with a straightforward biography, the drama fails to ignite. What we are left with is more of a pageant than a play, in which the boundaries between reality and artifice and art and life become blurred.

Furthermore it is written in an odd mixture of rhyming couplets and prose that seemed to me to be pretentious and clumsy, undermining the authenticity of the piece.

However director Michael Blakemore does manage to coax a convincing central performance from Roger Allam who manages to capture something of Reinhardt's social diffidence and ruinous extravagance, forever hounded by the masqued figure of death.

Plays in repertory until 30th August 2008.

By Laurence Green

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