Henley Players’ Quartet by Ronald Harwood, playing at the Kenton Theatre on March 19 for four days, differs from last year’s film of the same name in that audiences will actually see, as well as hear, the famous quartet from Act III, Scene 1 of Verdi’s Rigoletto from which the play gets its name, writes Bill Bowder.
The play, like the film, is set in a residential home for older opera singers. But filmgoers said they were disappointed when its director Dustin Hoffman skipped the money shot and panned away just as their concert began. They wanted to see how well its four stars Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins would have sung the quartet which is the point of the plot.
Henley theatre-goers can now experience those missing four minutes as the Henley Players’ cast of Frank Augur, Caroline Bowder, Jenny Haywood and Andy Marlow give full operatic force to the love tangle in Rigoletto when, as Reggie/Duke of Mantua, Jean/Gilda, Cissy/Maddalena and Wilf/Rigoletto they close the concert (and the play) with the most famous performance of their lives. To make sure they get the mood right, English Touring Opera’s Tim Yealland, brother of Henley resident John Yealland, gave up his time last week to put the cast through their paces.
“Think in sevens, one, two, three, then move, four, five, six, then look,” he told them in Harpsden Village Hall hall where they had been rehearsing twice a week since January. For actors whose whole instinct is to look at each other and combine speech and action, the ways of grand opera were a shock.
“We may not do it like this nowadays, but we want to be true to the way opera was then,” Tim said. “You were stars,” he reminded them.
“If Pavarotti had not agreed with what the director wanted, he would have told him where to get off. It’s the same with you. Fight for the centre, down stage, the best places, where you will shine.”
And they did. In less than two hours of intensive training Tim, who is experienced in teaching opera to people of all ages, had the four raging, snarling, weeping, teasing and lusting their way through those four intense minutes of the quartet. Ioan Havard, Henley Players’ photographer, zoomed in on the action to come away with riveting shots.
Each time the music played, the four were bigger, bolder, their gestures fuller, their stage presence greater.
When director Bill Bowder took Tim back to Henley station to catch the 10.06 train to London, his cast has been transformed. With just a few rehearsals to go, the task is to build on this power and intensity and bring it to the stage together with the loss of inhibition that comes from being stars.
As Wilf, played by Andy Marlow says to the rather buttoned-up Reginald, “The fact is Reg, I think about sex all bloody day and all bloody night. I should be past it but I’m not.”
Sex talk occupies much of the residents’ daily lives when they are not talking about the food, the other residents, art and ailments.
As Cissy, played by Jenny Haywood, says. “When I was young, I thought the elderly had never had lives of any kind at all. Certainly not sex lives. Yet here we are talking of nothing else.”
Other personal and professional secrets see the light of day as the singers learn about each other and learn that it is never too late, as Reggie says, to “be young again”. More about the play, including a powerful analysis by Georg Briner of the importance of Verdi’s music, is on the website www.henleyplayers.com
l Performances are at 7.30pm from March 19 to 22, with a matinée at 2pm on March 22, at the Kenton Theatre. Ticket prices start at £8. Call the box office on (01491) 575698 or visit www.kentontheatre.co.uk