The Remains of the Day was a slick and beautifully designed production slightly marred by an adaptation that leant too much on the comedic and an audience eager to laugh at any element that could be deemed farcical.
I was unsure how a stage adaptation was going to incorporate the movements between present day and flashbacks that structure the novel, but Barney Norris’ reworking of Ishiguro’s classic text, enhanced by Christopher Haydon’s direction, was successful in executing these shifts via some very effective sound design and an excellently choreographed cast. In fact, the whole production was beautifully slick, with nothing left to chance; some of the lovelier directorial touches came in the scene transitions which whirled around protagonist Stevens, allowing him to remain on stage for the duration of the performance – certainly no mean feat for Stephen Boxer.
Special mention must go to the decision to have Miss Kenton (Niamh Cusack) wandering in and out of Stevens’ present day, their past interrupting his current thoughts and conversations. But, though Miss Kenton was often on stage, the more sensational war element of the story seemed to be prioritised and not enough time was spent on building the relationship between her and Stevens – Cusack’s Kenton was perhaps too jovial and detached throughout, and I wonder whether, if you hadn’t read the novel, the play’s final revelation may have seemed, unsatisfyingly, to come from out of the blue.
Kenton’s cheeriness was symptomatic of a larger issue – the play’s tone never quite settled and we were left watching something that jolted between farce and tragedy. Though the novel does contain both of these elements, what makes it so incredibly impressive is that the humour and despair enrich each other, where here they seemed at odds – certainly not helped by an audience set on finding comedy where it wasn’t intended. Difficulty arose for Boxer especially, given that the nature of Stevens’ character would have been tainted had he bulldozed through the audience laughter to deliver his lines. It was essential that he remained patient in order to uphold the sense of dignity so vital to Ishiguro’s text, so it was unfortunate that there were occasions where his silence was interpreted as a pause for comedic effect.
This was most noticeable when Stevens is being mocked by one of the war-ministers in front of Darlington; he’s repeatedly asked questions about foreign policy that it would be wrong for him to answer given his position, so in a considered manner he responds each time that he’s afraid he can’t help with that matter. The war-minster pushes on, and each time Stevens answers, we see him become more and more aware of his futility and impotence, and increasingly embarrassed in front of a man he’s devoted his life to the service of. The space between question and response should have been silent and sincere, but instead was filled with laughter, meaning a moment that could have been one of the play’s high points of pathos was flattened.
It was always going to be a hard task to adapt such a desperately sad and profound novel for the stage, especially one that is so reliant on first-person narration, but there are definitely elements of Norris’ adaptation and Haydon’s direction that are admirable – the play was fast paced and held my interest keenly throughout, the acting was at times superb and there were moments of profundity that approached the emotion evoked by the text. Perhaps on a different night with a different audience, there would be less comedy found and the sad and silent dignity of Stevens would be allowed to take centre stage.