If Franz Kafka had penned a Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin episode and got Robert Wiene to direct it (with Terry Gilliam on hand to assist him, perhaps) then it’s possible that the end result would have been something like From Morning To Midnight, the latest production from Melly Still, which had its first preview performance in the Lyttelton on Tuesday night. Written in 1912, Georg Kaiser’s episodic Expressionist drama concerns a bank clerk who, shaken out of his dull routine by the appearance of a glam femme, absconds from his job with 60,000 gold marks in his pocket and an existentialist’s inquiry in his heart: that is, to discover “a reason for being alive, a reason for actually drawing breath.” It’s a quest that leads our hero through various locales (from hotel to snowy wasteland, brothel to Salvation Army meeting) over the course of one day, as Kaiser explores the kind of freedom and meaning attainable by Modern Man.
The National has this season’s Edward II on its hands with From Morning To Midnight, a production that, while clearly captivating some audience members, sent a number fleeing from the theatre at the interval and prompted the man in front of me to deem the show “The worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Without going that far (I, for one, would sooner sit through this production than the frightful Jeeves and Wooster again, for starters), the show is a mixed bag indeed. An inert text by Dennis Kelly (a writer who keeps getting commissions beyond his capabilities, it seems to me) is one of its major problems; it simply doesn’t do justice to the play’s leaps from the mundane to the phantasmagorical or provide the production with enough ballast to ground its effects and multiple coups de théâtre. Moreover, the piece feels, in this rendering, intellectually mediocre, its elements of social critique muted.
Still can be a wonderfully witty, imaginative director: her Beasts and Beauties was a marvel and, in Coram Boy, she delivered one of the finest-ever NT productions. And she certainly goes all-out to stage some big, startling moments here. They include a daringly sustained, near-wordless opening sequence presenting the bank’s routine and bustle; a snowstorm epiphany; and some deft, amusing early sequences that take us into the Clerk’s fantasies of himself as an intrepid romantic hero. Best of all is a great scene in which the Clerk rejects his family that’s punctuated by Kelly Williams’s fine shriek as the abandoned spouse – one of the all-too-rare moments in which a genuine human emotion pierces through the production’s conception.
The problem is that too many of the episodes come off, precisely, as self-conscious Big, Startling Moments designed to make the audience go “Wow!” and as a consequence the production feels at once over-elaborate and weirdly empty. Indeed, for a show that features a cycle race, bopping and a bawdy cabaret amongst other to-ing and fro-ing in its second half, much of From Morning To Midnight is surprisingly sluggish, the show reaching its nadir in a painfully protracted Salvation Army sequence (featuring Edward II-esque video projections, oh joy) that starts to feel like it will never, ever end. There’s also something offensive about the implications of this final scene and Kaiser’s eagerness to turn characters into money-grasping betrayers.
Some of the production’s pacing problems will probably be ironed out over the course of the preview period, but other troublesome aspects run deeper. Nodding and winking at the work of Wiene and Fritz Lang amongst others, Soutra Gilmour’s design combines with Bruno Poet’s lighting to forge another dispiriting gloom-and-shadows special (see here and here) that confuses depressive with impressive. And while the onstage band’s pastiching of silent film scores adds zing to scattered moments the musicians are ultimately strangely underused.
Fronting Still’s hard-working, multi-tasking ensemble, the always-inventive Adam Godley does all kinds of interesting physical things in the lead role; first seen as a mere silent cog in the machine of the bank, he unravels with zeal but never manages to create a character we come to care about. His Clerk remains a cipher to the (bitter) end, and consequently the protagonist’s journey has no poignancy and no emotional power.
That goes for the whole production, in fact. From Morning To Midnight is an admirably daring choice for the NT. It's a landmark expressionist play, and I'm happy that I saw it, but I'd have liked to have seen it served better than it is here. As it is, Still’s production lumbers on (and on) and Kelly’s version makes the play’s perceptions look too puny to carry the weight.