(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/14.)
I'm not quite sure why, but British theatre is currently preoccupied by the early 1960s. While Edward Bond, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker have all been recently honoured, it is now the turn of James Saunders, whose once-fashionable 1963 hit gets a rare revival. Even if aspects of the play have dated, it has a linguistic exuberance and metaphysical playfulness that makes it well worth seeking out.
Saunders was inspired, like many other dramatists of the time, by the story of Jimmy Mason: the hermit of Great Canfield who spent his last 36 years living in monastic isolation in a corrugated iron hut on the edge of an Essex village. But what did his seclusion signify? To answer the question, Saunders shows a group of people putting on a play about Mason. For Rudge, the preening author-director, the hermit was a resonant symbol of human solitude. For the cynical Dust, he was simply an old eccentric possibly driven by disappointment in love. But for the actor playing him, he becomes a saint too good to exist in an imperfect world.