IT is a long time since I have seen an audience so thrilled, as indeed was I, by a performance in what used to be known as the "legitimate" theatre. The reception given to Richard Harris as Henry IV at the Wyndham's Theatre is today only accorded to spectacular musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera.
When the final curtain fell on Harris' performance, the audience was electrified, yet during the play itself there were occasions when it had been unsure as to how to react. It only proved the skill of Richard Harris' performance, for Pirandello's Henry IV is a madman, at least he was, and for much of the play pretends that he still is.
Just as in life, many people are tentative in reacting to the handicapped and especially the mentally backward so it was with the audience at the Wyndham's, in the case of the idiotic Henry IV.
It was evidently a lifelong ambition of Richard Harris' to play Pirandello's Henry IV. The play has little logic, as was intended by the playwright, but it is abundant in poetry and has belatedly established Ireland's Harris as one of the best actors on the British stage. It is a pity that we never had the opportunity to see his Hamlet.
If I have concentrated on Richard Harris' performance, it is not to denigrate the direction, the staging or the other actors in the play. All contribute to the success of the production, but the night belongs to Richard Harris who cannot altogether subdue his sense of humour which emerges in his "papal" kissing of the ground, and a line about Irish priests which I doubt was written by Pirandello!
The programme for The Power and the Glory at the Chichester Festival Theatre recalls a story about the author Graham Greene whose novel had been condemned by the Holy Office in the 1950s. Graham Greene subsequently met Pope Paul who told him that among the novels of his that he had read was The Power and the Glory. When told that it had been condemned by the Holy Office, Pope Paul said "some parts of all your books will always offend some Catholics. You should not worry about that."
Times have changed. So has Mexico, which was the setting of Graham Greene's novel published 50 years ago, later filmed by John Ford, and then dramatised by Denis Cannan in the version now revived by Chichester.
It must be said that it seems to me a most unsuitable play for a large theatre with an apron stage, as is here the case. The entire production is geared to overcome this handicap. The story of the alcoholic fugitive priest is a very personal one. We are concerned with the agonies of his soul. The weakness of the flesh, the struggle between body and soul. Spectacular processions and obtrusive changes of scenery cannot disguise the incompatibility of the play and the theatre.