It feels like impudence to review a show whose protagonist staunchly affirms the irrelevance of the theatre critic. We are, so Dr Samuel Johnson tells us, merely ‘a species of dung beetle... [each] a fellow who makes himself fat upon other men’s droppings’. But it’s hard to imagine that A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson – a light, humane stroll through Johnson’s life and writings – will be feeling any harsh stings from critics, dung beetle or no dung beetle.
Out of Joint’s latest two-hander is an undeniably cozy pleasure. Samuel Johnson – ‘Dictionary Johnson’, to his 18th Century contemporaries – may have shaped our language more than anyone except Shakespeare, but only 20% of people on the street can vaguely identify him (and I do hope most of them are following his updated dictionary definitions on Twitter).
To rectify this situation, Johnson (Ian Redford) and his biographer Boswell (Luke Griffin) invite us to spend a jovial hour or so in drinking tea with them at the Arts Theatre, which shouldn’t take too long out of anyone’s day –although such is Johnson’s fondness for the fashionable drink, that ‘he has been known to drink up to fourteen cups at one sitting’.
In Redford’s gentle portrayal, Johnson’s notorious appetites are part of his zest for living, ‘a hunger for humanity’. But Max Stafford-Clark’s adaptation encompasses Johnson’s morbid melancholia as part and parcel of this vivacity: Redford’s Johnson is a man hypersensitive to both light and dark in the human experience. His remedies verge from the foolhardy – ‘he who makes a beast of himself [with drink] gets rid of the pain of being a man’ – to the Stoic, insisting that one should ‘never mention your own mental illness’ to avoid dwelling on it.
But for all this very modern concern with depression, for the most part A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson is an old-fashioned series of straight sketches, which hit a happy stream of comic high notes. Even when Johnson insists on seriousness, he does it with a smile: he has never wastes conversation on ‘vapid women with no opinion’, he insists, because ‘they have softness, but so do pillows’.
Some of the best laughs are at the expense of Scots Nationalists, although audience members of such persuasions will likely chortle just as happily as their English fellows to see Johnson’s pomposities on the subject so exposed. Oats, in Johnson’s dictionary, is defined as ‘a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’.
Johnson’s prejudice against the Scots seems more theatrical than genuine, but he certainly was deadly serious when he marshaled his pen to the defense of the Hanoverian George III against Jacobite claimants to the throne, a controversial alliance that provides us with an intriguing snapshot of the political and intellectual life of the 18th Century. (In one of the play’s more clod-obvious jokes, Johnson laments the horror of having a Scottish prime minister, ‘who has accumulated an unimaginable sum for the National Debt that will plague generations to come.’)
Redford’s Johnson is moved to horror at the thought of England suffering Scottish monarchs, with the surprising exception of Mary Queen of Scots, the empty-headed flibbertigibbet whom the stodgy intellectual Johnson nonetheless eulogizes in a passage prefiguring Edmund Burke’s famous romanticisation of another hopeless fashionista, Marie Antoinette.
But such musing on Scottish melodramas does at least allow us to meet a weird and wonderful range of legendary characters, from Mad King George to the beautiful Flora MacDonald who spirited Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety at Skye – now a rather prim and pious Grande Dame of late middle age.
It is this parade of crazy characters that gives Tea With Dr Johnson its legs. Literary figures of the stature of Oliver Goldsmith (whose mind ‘mind resembled a fertile, but thin soil’) and radical politicians like John Wilkes all flit on stage for a few minutes or so, each portrayed by the nimbly transformative Luke Griffin.
It’s hard to believe that Griffin only had a few days to study for the role, but some of the credit for the play’s development surely belongs to the original performer, Russell Barr, who adapted this exquisite play alongside Redford and Stafford-Clark in the rehearsal room before being taken ill. It seems to owe something to Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr Johnson, but most of the dialogue is deftly woven from Johnson and Boswell’s own recorded reminiscences.
All the famous one-liners are there: we recall that a second marriage is ‘the triumph of hope over experience’, and ‘one of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes men mistake words for thoughts.’ But above and beyond a mere recitation of Johnson’s greatest hits stands a production of subtle humanity.
Let’s hope that those who crafted it are well remunerated when the show returns to London. After all, ‘no man but a blockheaded ever wrote except for money.’
A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnsonadapted by Russell Barr, Ian Redford and Max Stafford-Clark, from James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
4 STARS “A rare treat” Michael Billington, The Guardian
4 STARS “One did not want the evening to end” Paul Taylor, The Independent
4 STARS “A joyous encounter” Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph
4 STARS “Delightful… Johnson was a legendary wit. As such he makes a perfect subject.” Whatsonstage.com
Irritable, generous, seriously depressed yet a great wit: meet Samuel “Dictionary” Johnson – poet, essayist and lexicographer. This evening of stories and conversation brings to life some of the most colourful figures of the eighteenth century.
Ian Redford reprises his much-praised performance as Johnson in a play that features a host of characters from biographer James Boswell and painter Joshua Reynolds to King George III, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s saviour Flora Macdonald. Trudie Styler(read interview) plays Mrs Thrale, the society hostess who was Johnson’s final, unrequited love*.
“Ian Redford is as close to the real Dr Johnson as one could ever hope to see onstage” Time Out, on A Laughing Matter
Director Max Stafford-Clark says: “A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson continue’s Out of Joint’s tradition of literary biography. The Libertine was about George Etherege and the Earl of Rochester; A Laughing Matter introduced us to the world of Dr Johnson, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith and Joshua Reynolds; and the recent Andersen’s English depicted the visit of Hans Christian Andersen to Charles Dickens.
“With A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson we return to the fascinating world of the great Dr Johnson. Until the middle of the 19th Century only the two patent houses, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, were permitted to present drama. So when Samuel Foote, Johnson’s contemporary, presented his evening of comic impersonations and vignettes it was billed as ‘An Invitation to a Dish of Chocolate with Samuel Foote’. From him we have purloined our title.”
*Trudie Styler is not appearing on 10, 11, and 20-24 Sep