Dark Urges: Accolade At St James Theatre
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Something we forget in 2014, just as they forgot it in 1950, is that famous people seldom ask to be called role models. Still less do you hear one beg for global scrutiny of their every activity. Then as now, celebrity makes you a media target. In the anxious post-war Britain of Emlyn Williams’ play Accolade, writer Will Trenting (Alexander Hanson) receives an accolade on the same day he receives a blackmail; he gets a knighthood just as he is put to the tabloid sword over photos of him with a girl (whom he didn't know was underage) at a drunken sex party. He never pretended to be a saint, but that doesn't mean he won't be judged by a saint's standards.
If it had been written yesterday rather than 64 years ago, Accolade wouldn’t be a case of “you couldn’t make it up” but perhaps “you shouldn’t make it up”. It sails so close to modern taboo that really, to be comfortable watching, it has to play out like a 64 year-old story which just happens to have interesting contemporary relevance. That is both its greatest strength and its weakness.
On the former point, it is heartening to witness the rediscovery of this very personal work. The Welsh playwright Williams outed himself as an active bisexual yet also maintained his marriage and family life. He evidently based the orgy-loving yet doting dad Will Trenting on his own experience of living a Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque double life. He even played Trenting in the play’s original run. His rather confessional work went uncensored - much to his delight - though it was broadly unremembered as well. That was until tonight’s director, up-and-comer Blanche McIntyre, dug it out for a 2011 revival at the Finborough Theatre.
Williams’ clear-minded views on literature make the revival worthwhile on their own. A haughty publisher character in the play ultimately comes to accept, even envy, Trenting’s lifestyle on the grounds that it stimulated Trenting's great writing. Indeed, the primary imperative is for those characters closest to Trenting to learn to love even his "disreputable" alter-ego. Because, to return to the unwilling role model theme, the idea is that the acceptance of loved ones matters more than the acceptance of the public.
Problematically, though, Trenting's big indiscretion with the young girl does not reflect mere tabloid hysteria. It may have been accidental, but there are still big questions over the morality of it. In this era of Operation Yewtree, that makes unmitigated sympathy for Trenting something of an inconvenient proposal, especially as his “adversary”, the blackmailer, is the father of the underage girl. Should Trenting's disreputable side be forgiven, but the blackmailer's not? A formidable cast sells it well, but as often in drama, just remember that context is all.
Accolade runs until 13 December at St James Theatre, 12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA. Tickets £15 to £49.50. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 18 November 2014