Review: The Remains Of The Day
Posted by News Editor
Posted in News
Review The Remains of the Day, Salisbury Playhouse
Helena Gomm applauds a moving exploration of what might have been.
The Remains of the Day, adapted for the stage by Barney Norris from Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize–winning novel is that rare thing, a story where what is not said is as important as what is, if not more so.
The action alternates between the reminiscences of Stevens, formerly butler to Lord Darlington, about events at Darlington Hall in the 1930s, and the events of a trip he undertakes in the 1950s to the West Country in his new employer’s Daimler, ostensibly to see if the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton – now Mrs Benn – will consent to return.
The play moves seamlessly between the two time periods, aided by smooth choreography as the characters from both eras revolve around Stevens and his private griefs, effortlessly placing and replacing furniture as necessary and with the actors playing multiple roles.
Against the backdrop of Lily Arnold’s magnificent set – a series of sliding translucent panels down which rain appears to pour almost constantly – and accompanied by an atmospheric soundtrack, the aging butler’s private agony is played out as he reviews the events of his life in service. It is a story of paths not taken and emotions not expressed.
Well–supported by the rest of the cast, Stephen Boxer as Stevens and Niamh Cusack as Miss Kenton are superb, perfectly conveying the differences between the two characters. Stevens is emotionally repressed, the entire focus of his life being to serve his master as the perfect butler.
Though an accomplished housekeeper, Miss Kenton is forthright, sometimes almost skittish, and does not regard the fact that she is in service reason enough to relinquish her right to her own feelings and opinions.
Stevens’s emotional constipation and determination to subsume his own needs to those of his master reach a climax in a heart-rending scene when the requirements of Lord Darlington and his guests are allowed to trump the needs of Stevens’s own father, gravely ill in an upstairs chamber.
The son’s final words to his clearly dying father are a polite ‘I’m glad you’re feeling better’ as he excuses himself to return to his duties. It is Miss Kenton, with Stevens’s permission, who closes the old man’s eyes.
It soon becomes clear that Darlington is not deserving of his butler’s unquestioning loyalty. He is working hard behind the scenes to ensure that there will not be another war with Germany, even if this means appeasement and acceptance of fascism – better for the English upper classes, he feels, than the other threat of communism.
His actions will ultimately lead to exposure in the press and disgrace. Stevens is no fascist, but he makes himself complicit because his sense of duty refuses to allow him to question Darlington’s order that any Jewish staff should be dismissed. Even when Miss Kenton, appalled by this decision, challenges him over his acquiescence and makes it quite clear how wrong it would be, his sense of propriety refuses to allow him to take a stand against his master’s orders.
This and her failure to goad Stevens into admitting that he has feelings for her eventually results in Miss Kenton leaving for what turns out to be a turbulent and unsatisfactory marriage to someone even she describes as ‘an acquaintance’.
Twenty years later, cajoled into taking a holiday by his affable new American employer, but unwilling to accept even this treat for himself, Stevens has turned the holiday into a kind of business trip, supposedlyto find out if Miss Kenton would consider coming back to Darlington Hall as housekeeper. He is fooling no one.
They have kept up a steady correspondence over the years and the last couple of letters have spoken of marital disharmony. Perhaps, despite the fact that he let the potential love of his life slip through his fingers all those years ago, there is still a chance that he can rekindle their relationship. Or not. As they sit in a Cornish café going over old times, it appears that Stevens has learnt nothing.
Even though Miss Kenton says she is turning down his offer of a job because she and her husband have reconciled, it is clear that Stevens has nothing more to offer her on an emotional level than he did twenty years before.
He cannot even admit the truth of the Jewish maids incident and claims that he never wanted to make them leave at all. Miss Kenton sadly puts him right over what he had said to her at the time:that it was only right and proper to sack them if that was what Lord Darlington wanted.
Ishiguro’s novel is a restrained and subtle account of wasted lives and wasted opportunities, and that is where its beauty lies. Though it lacks some of subtlety of the novel, including a couple of rather clunky references to Brexit that are not lost on the audience, this adaptation succeeds in conveying a heart-breaking sense of regret over what might have been.
There are audible groans from the audience as Stevens makes the wrong decision or says the wrong thing yet again. But it is in watching the flickers of suppressed emotion and the avoidance of facing up to the past conveyed by every movement of Stephen Boxer’s agile face and the equally telling responses in the eyes of Niamh Cusack that the power of this production resides.