By David Hare
Royal Court Theatre, London, September 1975
Revived: Wyndham’s Theatre, London, May 1976
Jesus College, Cambridge, 9 June 1969, the night of the ‘May Ball’. (For reasons lost in the fog of history, ‘May Week’ in Cambridge is in June.) This is the setting for David Hare’s 1975 play about a rock band on the skids, who are hired to play to an indifferent audience of party-goers. As Hare recalled in an interview,
It was an extraordinary clash of two worlds: these May balls with people dressed up and performing a complete parody of a life that was over many, many years ago, and into that crashed these rock bands, like travelling people on the move.
(Time Out, 1975)
Hare was an undergraduate himself at Jesus from 1965-8, which makes this one of his most autobiographical plays. It was not a happy period for him. ‘At the time I didn’t know there was anything else,’ he told Ronald Hayman. ‘I thought that was probably what life was like. When I discovered it was just Cambridge, it was the biggest release of my life.’ Tempted to the college by the prospect of studying with veteran Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams, he quickly grew disillusioned. As well he might: while Marxism has virtually disappeared from the intellectual armoury in the decades since, the tradition of the May ball, which the young ideologue found so anachronistic in the 1960s, survives and flourishes into the new century. Somehow this disenchantment and bitterness found its way into the play, as he explained to Georg Gaston:
I would say that Teeth’n’Smiles is about the fag-end of idealism. It’s about utopianism when it turned sour. It’s about that stage people reach when they will do anything for an experience, and having originally enjoyed the vitality of the experience, they then become addicted to the experience.
(quoted in About Hare, p88)
The plot is minimal. The band bicker and while away the time between sets with silly games. There’s a drugs bust. Maggie (Helen Mirren), their lead singer, burns down the marquee, apparently in a self-willed effort to get herself sent to prison: Hare got very cross with the critics for failing to pick up on her motivation here (‘it was beyond their scope to engage with such an idea’) but perhaps, like me, they just found it implausible.
The university background is only lightly sketched in, represented by two stereotypes: a tongue-tied medical student, Anson (an early role for Antony Sher), and an obsequious college porter, Snead (Roger Hume). The playwright’s real interest is the band and its internecine strife. Maggie is testing their patience to breaking point. Can they carry on like this, having to sober her up in a cold bath before each show? No one understands why she’s unhappy. Arthur (Jack Shepherd), the band’s songwriter, has a stab at interpretation. It’s not that ‘she doesn’t know how to be happy’, he suggests, rather that ‘she’s frightened of being happy’. She saws off whatever branch she happens to be sitting on at the time. Pompous utterances like ‘the quality of the singing depends on the quality of the pain’ may trip off her tongue, but she betrays by a smirk that she considers any claims for pop music’s wider significance to be ‘bollocks’. In short, Maggie, inspired – certainly in Mirren’s portrayal of her – by Janis Joplin, is a train-wreck: unreliable, self-pitying, addictive, yet born to be a frontwoman.
In the words of the Times reviewer, ‘Helen Mirren erupts onto the platform, her hair cascading, her voice yelling from a pale face topped with lifeless eyes…’ The stage direction for her first number indicates the energy level Hare intended:
Then without a break the band go straight into the next number. Dazzling light. MAGGIE joins them, singing, burning off the fat as she goes.
I saw the original production at the Royal Court and made some scrappy notes at the time. Re-reading them now, I see that I was impressed by Mirren’s incredible attack; the energy was most emphatically there. I found her singing pretty awful; but somehow it didn’t matter too much, so carried away was I by the bravura of the performance. I was unsure about her accent, which wandered in and out of mockney. On reflection, that may have been intentional. Maggie is supposed to be emblematic of another 60s phenomenon: the inverted snobbery that made a middle-class kid aspire to be working-class. I found the play funny and very believable in atmosphere, but at risk like so much social realist writing from a sentimentality that oozed through the gaps between the expletives and the dirty jokes. A portentous and overlong speech by Saraffian (Dave King), the band’s manager, about the bombing of the Café de Paris during the War slowed up the action.* In a scene I pronounced ‘cloying’, Maggie and Arthur, one-time lovers, reminisced by the light of their glowing cigarettes. I seem to have responded better to the alcoholic excess of Maggie's second set as she bad-mouthed the audience (‘this is meant to be a freak-out not a Jewish funeral!’) before attempting to debag the keyboard player. Despite my conviction that Mirren was (to quote my adolescent self) a ‘High Priestess to interpret sacred texts’, I obviously revelled in the sight and sound of my favourite Shakespearean actress getting low and dirty in a modern drama.
In interviews given at the time, Mirren said she found continuity between this part and others she had played. She also found aspects of herself:
I’m very like Maggie in many ways, only she’s much more ballsy and gutsy than me. I endorse most of what Maggie says, in fact in many ways it’s difficult to talk about her because I feel so close to her...
When I was first offered the part I was so scared. I’ve never wanted to play a part so much since I played my first part when I was seven years old [Gretel]. I get very bored going to the theatre now. I’d much rather go to rock concerts [JJ Cale, Dr John and Led Zeppelin are among her favourites]. So when I was offered the part of Maggie, a singer, well, I’m not a natural audience, I’m a performer, I had to do it. Of course I felt scared about the singing, I love singing but I can’t sing. [Nick Bicat, music director for the production, says she can sing ‘because she’s herself and very brave’.]
(Time Out, 1975, parentheses in the original)
There aren’t many good parts for actresses. Maggie is a good strong part and that’s quite rare in modern theatre. So I like it for that. I don’t like it because it gets to me in a funny sort of way. Perhaps too close to sides of me I don’t much like. But it just makes me feel unattractive.
… Maggie’s doing it [struggling with a boring middle-class background] in one way. I don’t think that’s the only way to do it, possibly. But I’ve always had this sneaking admiration for people who go to the extremes of energy and wit. They’re terribly, horribly destructive often, but there’s something really fascinating and very lovable about them. I find it very difficult to let go. I mean I find it practically impossible to let go. I just get very sulky instead. I don’t think I can do a Maggie at all. I’m too self-conscious.
… When I played Miss Julie, it was the same cathartic experience, because you let it go. You let it all come out without ever actually committing yourself personally – although I do try to commit myself personally as much as possible on stage and try to make it as real and present as possible.
Reality irrupted into the make-believe in ways no one had anticipated. One night as Mirren waited to go on, she was disturbed by a commotion from the street outside. It was a drunken Keith Moon, fabled drummer of The Who. He stumbled into her dressing room, told her how he’d heard great reports of the show, and then attempted to join her on stage. He was stopped by the management. She says she’s always regretted that missed opportunity to share the stage with a real rock’n’roll legend.
*In the Gaston interview (About Hare, p89), Hare admits this speech is a weakness of the play. Interestingly, he compares it to what he calls ‘the worst famous example of this sort’ – Nina’s speech in Act 4 of The Seagull where she recounts what has happened to her in the interval since Act 3. Chekhov telling, not showing. ‘It’s a speech that defeats every actress I’ve ever seen play the part,’ says Hare. (In 1975 Mirren went straight from Teeth’n’Smiles into rehearsals for The Seagull: she played Nina.)
Ronald Hayman, ‘David Hare: coming out of a different trap’, The Times, 30 August 1975
Charles Lewsen, ‘Evening of zestful good humour’, The Times, 3 September 1975
‘End of the acid era’, Time Out, 29 August 1975, 12-15
Andrew Tyler, ‘The acid dream is dead and lying in the West End’, New Musical Express, 12 June 1976, 8-9
Richard Boon, About Hare: The Playwright and the Work, 2003
Postscript, June 2013.
An interesting <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7bji1hBgAg">interview</a>
has turned up on YouTube. On 25 May 1976, as Teeth’n’Smiles transferred to the West End, Mirren appeared on
BBC’s news and current affairs show Tonight discussing the play
with interviewer Donald MacCormick. The segment includes a clip from the dress rehearsal
(one of the musical numbers).