Firstly, a confession: my name is Gemma and I am a Roger Allam fan-lady. So I cannot make any claim that the following account of seeing Seminar at the Hampstead Theatre in October 2014 is an impartial, measured, cool-eyed examination of a piece of contemporary theatre.
The short version of this blog post is: “Omg, Roger Allam is amazing and god-like in his thespian brilliance”. If you would like the longer version, please do read on…
Opening in a huge Upper East side apartment in New York, the play revolves around creative writing seminars held by Allam’s character, Leonard, with four young would-be writers of varying levels of ability and confidence.
Leonard is a cynical and egotistical fiction writer turned editor and journalist*. He’s fallen on hard times which means he has had to grudgingly take on private students (reasons are revealed as the play unfolds).
The first half sees Leonard tearing each of the young writers apart, as the loyalties and alliances they have forged between themselves are tested, along with their ideas of what writing is, who writers are and what drives them to write.
Leonard’s caustic sarcasm was an absolute gift for Allam’s strengths. When silently reading the students’ work and dismissively casting their pages to the floor, Allam’s occasional snarls, sighs and snorts of derision, conveyed Leonard’s contempt just as effectively as his wordy, sweary, devastating monologues. Hearing Allam linger on the word “whorish”, somehow adding several syllables, was especially memorable.
Through the conflicting viewpoints of Leonard and the students, the play’s author, Theresa Rebeck, has interesting things to say about writers and the writing process – why writers write, how and why some get published, the influence and control of connections, networking and ‘playing the game’.
Sexual politics are examined too, with the play’s female characters being strongly written, complex and more nuanced than I suspect they would’ve been if created by a male writer. Charity Wakefield’s performance as Kate was particularly good. Watching her develop from a neurotic Jane Austen imitator into a pragmatic, confident woman, calling the shots and wrapping Leonard around her little finger was especially pleasing.
The second half reveals Leonard’s back story and humanises him somewhat compared with the bullying monster of the first half. The students come to terms with their talents, acknowledge their strengths and limitations, and choose their different writing paths. For all that Leonard’s sarcasm, arrogance and self-importance has challenged or offended them, there is the sense that each has learnt something from him during the seminars.
The wordy nature of the play and its themes of writing and writers could’ve made for a static and dense piece, but director, Terry Johnson, kept the cast moving and the energy high. The designer, Lez Brotherson, created envy-inducing NYC interiors, Kate’s minimal high ceilinged apartment contrasting with Leonard’s cluttered industrial loft. I would happily live in either!
It’s recently been announced that Allam will return to the Hampstead Theatre in autumn 2015 for a new play by David Hare called The Moderate Soprano. So I’ll be going to see that – not least because I’m hoping Allam can unlock ‘The Mystery of David Hare’ to me. I’ve never quite clicked with his work and am somewhat baffled by the seemingly universal praise his plays receive. There. I’ve said it. Another revealing confession to finish with!
*He also has tremendous hair.