Theatre Review

Time well spent

Three Hours of Rain. Donmar Warehouse, London.

What lessons can we draw from the past? At a time when some academics, shamefully unaware of their unwitting attachment to the ideological apparatus of capitalism, claim that history is dead, contemporary playwrights are much concerned with the conclusions we draw from events long ago. In the last year or so I have seen plays by Tom Stoppard (Arcadia), Michael Frayn (Copenhagen—see Socialist Standard, September 1998), Peter Barnes (Dreaming—Socialist Standard, August 1999) and Stephen Poliakoff (Remember This—Socialist Standard, December 1999), all of which conclude that the past very much determines what takes place in the present. And now Richard Greenberg, a young American whose work has not previously been seen in Britain, offers us a splendid new play in which the past is ever present.

Three Days of Rain involves only three actors. In the first act we meet brother and sister, Walker and Nan, together with Pip, the son of their father’s business partner in an architects’ consultancy. In the second act the same actors play Walker and Nan’s father and mother, and Theo, their father’s business partner. And as the second act unfolds it becomes apparent why Walker, Nan and Pip are as they are. Not, I hasten to add, in any crude deterministic fashion, Greenberg’s imagination is far too subtle for that. Rather we are aware of the impact that one generation makes on the next: of the way in which behaviour is affected by the complex chemistry of both nature and nurture. Act 1 offers us a view of the past in which Walker, Ned and Pip strive to understand the behaviours of their parents trying to make sense of diaries and remembered anecdotes. And Act 2 shows, us with both drama and poignancy, that if you don’t have enough evidence and you don’t understand the context, you will reach the wrong conclusions.

The play is a warm, intelligent one, by turns touching, sensitive and funny, which is marvellously played in the small, 250-seater, Donmar Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden. It is a play which points to the dangers of judging a person’s contribution on the basis of their family life, their relations with their children, and so on. If we are to understand people’s lives we need to have access to all the relevant evidence. The personal behaviour of the architect fathers of Walker, Nan and Pip cannot be inferred from their buildings, even though the latter command universal praise. Francis Wheen’s recent biography of Karl Marx makes much the same point. Marx’s contribution to the history of western though cannot be judged by his rather fey attempts to live a bourgeois life in mid-Victorian London.


The following three plays—all of which have been reviewed in this journal—are still playing in London. All can be seen for less than half the cost of a ticket to a Premier League football match. All have something to say to socialists. All are highly recommended at the turn of the century.

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn (Duchess Theatre) “Michael Frayn has written one of the best plays about science and society that it has been my pleasure to see.”

Summerfolk by Maxim Gorki (National Theatre. Reviewed September 1999). “Summerfolk is as relevant today as it has ever been. I hope to find an early opportunity to see the play again and to marvel at the skill of the actors and the wonder of its staging.”

The Weir by Conor McPherson (Royal Court Theatre. Reviewed April 1998). “Valerie’s revelation serves both to underscore the emptiness at the heart of their lives and to offer an alternative which might be reached through honest, open discourse, about matters of real concern, managed in an empathetic manner . . . This is theatre at its most sublime.”


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