The role of Susan Traherne in David Hare’s Plenty remains one of the most daunting. It was so in 1978, when the play was first produced at London’s National Theatre (and later on Broadway) with Kate Nelligan as Susan, and it is so today, with Rachel Weisz giving perhaps the best performance of her accomplished career at the Public Theater in New York.
Susan remains every inch a formidable challenge. And although Weisz looks fresh and happy at curtain call (despite several postponements in the final scheduling of opening night) she couldn’t have had an effortless two-and-a-half hours negotiating the emotional parabola that Hare puts her through, starting when her character is 17-year-old spy behind enemy lines in World War II France.
David Hare is plenty political to the very end.
When next spotted, she’s in an embassy office in Brussels, attempting to have sent home the body of a dead Englishman whom she claims is her husband’s. Now it’s 1947, a time somewhat pinpointed by costume designer Jess Goldstein’s Dior-New-Look-style outfit. She appeals to a dapper ambassador, Leonard Darwin (Byron Jennings), who believes her story, and to an undersecretary, Raymond Brock (Corey Stoll), who finds her account fishy.
Despite his skepticism, Raymond then makes a play for Susan that she doesn’t resist for long. For the rest of Hare’s two-act play, she alternately charms and repels him — after he marries her, that is, after her stay in an institution. It’s Raymond who observes that Susan’s frequent reminiscing about the war always precedes a troubling incident.
Hare keeps the combustible incidents coming as if fired from a machine gun. At one point, Susan, who not only regularly loses control of herself but boasts of liking to lose control, spends 18 months trying to conceive a child out of wedlock with Mick (LeRoy McClain) and rails at him when she fails. That’s in a scene witnessed by Alice, a loyal and committed Bohemian. During another volatile episode and this time wearing a more Chanel-like ensemble, she goes wild at another government building in the presence of foreign officers John Begley (Tim Nicolai) and Sir Andrew Charleson (Paul Niebanck).
Susan’s most outlandish fit — so mad that Hare ends Act I with it — occurs in the elegant drawing room of her grand home with Raymond. At a formal dinner, she loses it ferociously, mocking Darwin’s participation in then-British Prime Minster Anthony Eden’s 1956 Suez crisis as diplomat M. Aung (Pun Bandhu) and his wife (Ann Sanders) stoically look on. (When Plenty was first performed in London more than three decades ago, the Suez crisis was still very much mired in the UK’s collective conscious. Today it’s less recalled and stateside audiences may especially strain to recall the circuitous Israel-France-UK plot to wrest the Suez Canal from Egypt. To that extent, and only to that extent, this drama might be considered dated.)
So who is Susan? What is Susan? Hare presents her in great detail — so great that from lengthy scene to lengthy scene, the script registers as strained. She’s a portrait of madness, a reminder that when Pedro Almodóvar called his 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, he’d come up with a title that could apply to a large percentage of works about women.
In the case of Susan, Hare implicitly (or maybe not so implicitly) attributes her unsteady frame of mind to World War II. Others might question this theory, but it holds up if Susan, at 17 at the start of the play, is fragile, perhaps not unlike the young and alienated who fight for ISIS, and thus ripe for long-term psychological consequences. Keep in mind, too, that women figure as unsettled protagonists throughout Hare’s canon; The Secret Rapture may be the most prominent.
Hare is one of the most overtly political of all English-speaking playwrights: “I’ll always be a political playwright,” he averred in 2015. Which makes it hard not to watch Plenty without thinking that Susan somehow stands for something larger. A postwar symbol of Great Britain? Maybe so, maybe no, maybe calculated, maybe not. But as directed here by David Leveaux, it’s certainly a thought.
Susan remains every inch a formidable challenge.
While Plenty could be termed a vehicle, Hare has nevertheless seen to providing pithy secondary roles. Stoll, Bergl, Jennings — all seasoned scene-heisters — have the heaviest lifting, but even cast members with one or two scenes in which to make meaningful contributions do just that, right down to Liesel Allen Yeager, who plays 17-year-old Dorcas Frey, a student with whom Bergl’s character has a short affair.
Visually and aurally, this Plenty offers plenty — it’s a stinging, ironic title, from Mike Britton’s lean revolving set to David Weiner’s lighting to Leah J. Loukas’ abundant wigs and hair to David Van Tieghem’s sound. Someone, though, might point out that piping in Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love” from the musical Call Me Madam to set up 1947 Brussels is chronologically misleading: it opened in 1950.
No review of a Hare work should close without mentioning his way with words, often when making political fun. Well-known for his socialist sympathies, he gets off a good one when he calls attention to the some Tory party members’ penchant for younger prey. He is plenty political to the very end.