The Remains of the Day - The Bristol Old Vic

The Remains of the Day - The Bristol Old Vic

Perhaps the issue with The Remains of the Day was that it had an excellent pre-show. With the combined genius of Lily Arnold (Designer), Mark Howland (Lighting Designer), Elena Peña (Sound Designer) and Sophie Cotton (Composer) creating the illusion of a continuous stream of water gushing down the set, the auditorium was buzzing. Sadly, this proved to be the highlight of the evening.

The Remains of The Day, a postmodern period drama based on the novel-turned-film of the same name, takes the audience through the memories of Mr Stevens: a butler who serves the home of a Nazi-sympathising nobleman. A new adaptation by Barney Norris, Remains styles itself as a series of post-war reflections on the interwar period: bringing up questions of inheritance, Britishness and duty, and creating a world of temporal fragments which converge, overlap and fall apart.

Whilst this dramaturgy shows real promise, it is also the production’s greatest downfall. Most of Act 1 is taken up in teaching the slightly clunky narratological grammar - a bit more facelight and we’re remembering, a cool blue wash and we’re in the moment - that the actual story becomes an aside at best. Though towards the latter end of the first half, once Remains warms into itself and almost begins to feel exciting, ‘almost’ is very much the operative word. There are, in theory, poignant moments where characters peel away the layers of British “discretion”, as it is termed by Mr Stevens, to unearth something more unstable and emotional - a wavering voice holding back tears, or a passive-aggressive snap followed by stony silence. However, it is also at these moments that Remains tends to stray into pantomime-esque caricature. Christopher Haydon and Matilda Reith - the directorial duo behind Remains - can evidently do gorgeously subtle direction. The scene in which Stevens discovers his father is dying but neglects to stay by his deathbed for more than a moment, citing his need to return to work at the conference happening downstairs, was particularly emotive. It was a shame that this did not carry through into the rest of the production.

Similarly, Remains never quite gets a handle on any sort of running theme. Love lost, absence, cycles of life, death, history, nostalgia, regret - the play is rich with thematic motifs, but always just out of reach. “Treaties and boundaries and reparations and occupations. But Mother Nature just carries on her own sweet way. Funny to think of it like that, don't you think?”, remarks one character, in reference to an earlier comedic mix-up regarding a misunderstood sex talk, but also coinciding with the aforementioned death of Mr Stevens’s father. A gorgeous moment, yes, but never raised again. In having its thematic threads tie themselves up within a few scenes, Remains lacks any ongoing tension - instead feeling like a series of vignettes which, though linked, have their crises and resolutions all wrapped up within ten minutes. By the interval, the plot seems to have resolved itself, such that Act 2 is essentially a series of post-hoc reflections. In other words, Remains feels as though it tries so hard to be an intellectual exercise in stagecraft that it forgets to make the audience feel anything.

As the play goes on, the design begins to feel more and more like the result of a lot of money and talent being lobbed at a production without any real dramaturgical specificity. Why are there extended scene changes achieving very little at seemingly random moments? What does the set actually symbolise? The ongoing rainfall motif provides a suitably gloomy backdrop for Stevens’s reflections, and the translucent walls - which ensemble sit behind for the bulk of Act 2 - give the stage space depth. But with the plot standing for so very little, these more slick design elements feel like a tokenistic gesture towards something far more profound than Remains actually pulls off.

The politics of the narrative feels equally half-baked. The general premise is that Mr Stevens is reflecting on the choices he made in upholding “discretion” and enacting anti-Semitic policies in and around the home he served; he is damned by his own regret at ending up on the ‘wrong side of history’. Anti-Semitism is thrown up as an attitude which is wrong, but feels like a placeholder for a ‘Generic Bad Thing’ - it is never really explored in depth in and of itself, being used for shock factor instead of any actual political exploration. The main concern towards the end of the play is not the discrimination Stevens enacted, nor the Holocaust, nor the ongoing persecution of Jewish people, but Stevens’s own shame about the legacy he leaves. Indeed, the story seems to condemn Mr Stevens more for being on the wrong side of history than it does for him being complicit in a literal genocide. Likewise, the one major female character - Ms Kenton - is largely shepherded around as an object of male desire, only existing insofar as she represents the regret of Mr Stevens at not building his life with her.

In a play with so many potentially nuanced characters, the dramatists have picked the path of most resistance. Because of course, realistically, Mr Stevens is going to be fine. He is a non-Jewish man with an estate to live off. He survives both wars. What of Ruth and Sarah, the Jewish women dismissed under a Nazi-sympathising employee? What of Ms Kenton, living unhappily under her husband? The plights of the other characters are only there to serve Mr Stevens’s regret. Though Remains is an adaptation of a film of a novel, and so many of these problematics likely stem from the plotline as set out originally, does a 2019 adaptation of a 1989 text not have a responsibility to adapt to the political climate of the moment? After all, Remains has its fair share of allegories for present-day politics thrown in for good measure: a discussion about keeping with “the will of the people” (however uneducated), kept the dramatists amused for a good five minutes of stage time. Why could the same not be done for the storyline itself?

More fundamentally, Mr Stevens is going to be fine and we don’t much care if he isn’t. With little tension held on to, with a confusing and clunkily-executed split-temporal narrative, it is difficult to invest in what happens to him. The overriding message reads as “Mr Stevens was anti-Semitic and now he is sad”, with no plot built into it beyond a series of instances of Mr Stevens doing things he will probably later regret. Though there are a couple of moments of comic relief - largely headed up by Edward Franklin (playing Reginald, the näive godson of Mr Stevens’s employer) - these are few and far between, such that Remains feels not only politically questionable, but also somewhat joyless.

In fairness, when Remains works, it really works. Once the narratological devices are established, when the focus is turned away from Mr Stevens, and when tension is genuinely put in play, it momentarily becomes a gloriously pacey, complex story about scattered loyalties, blame and morality. Unfortunately, this balance is only really struck in a handful of moments. For the remainder of the time, Remains feels like a production which exhausts itself, in all senses of the word - taking the audience with it, slowly and painstakingly, through a politically questionable narrative which seems to be determined from the opening moments.

Perhaps Remains is best described as an exercise in intellectualism which doesn’t quite follow through. It takes up interwar and post-war issues and says very little about them. It has a gorgeous set which serves no obvious narrative function, largely because there is little in the way of a narrative to serve. It has a bold dramaturgy which provides no real scope for the audience to actually invest in the storyline. It feels like it could be excellent, but sits - like the ensemble throughout Act 2 - behind a translucent wall, just out of reach and doing very little.


***

THREE STARS

Clodagh Chapman