David Troughton appears relaxed and at ease with his new role for the Young Vic, playing George Antrobus in Thornton Wilder's 1942 production of The Skin of Our Teeth. Entering the final stages of the rehearsal period in studios in Kennington, the play is directed by David Lan, artistic director of The Young Vic, and may prove to be the most controversial hit of the year. Six weeks intensive rehearsal on a play with music and dancing hardly seems like very much time as Troughton begins to describe the enormous venture that makes up Wilder's classic.
'It is an extraordinary play' says Troughton, his larger than life energy communicating a mixture of fun, awe and fear. 'The play is so theatrical -- so entirely revolutionary -- when the play was first performed in Plymouth [USA] in 1942, several members of the audience just got up and walked out, because they didn't understand it!' Is there any fear of that happening now? 'No, of course not. We are all so much more theatrically and intellectually knowing. We have been brought up on a tradition of Brechtian metatheatricality -- Wilder was experimenting with Brecht and the audiences then just weren't attuned.'
So what is the play all about? 'Well, I don't want to give too much away about the plot. In fact, Sabina [played by Indira Varma] doesn't understand what's going on in the play either, and steps forward to ask the audience.' Troughton does provide a little inkling of the concept behind the play: 'It's about a typical American family in the 1940 who suffer the three terrible events -- an Ice Age, the Flood and War -- and they survive them literally "by the skin of their teeth".' 'That's the whole theme of the play, surviving -- and it's a thin line between destruction and survival for us all.'
'Even so, there's so much hope in the play. You can't say Wilder was a political writer -- it is more that he wants us to look at personal or national tragedy -- war, famine -- as cyclical. We have to keep learning from what is thrown at us -- keep learning a little more each time -- because things will happen and keep on happening, but don't worry, we will survive.' It seems so rare to work on a play with 'hope' as its central core in this postmodern cynical world. It was strangely exciting to hear Troughton express this simple ideal with passion and almost evangelical zeal.
Troughton certainly convinced me that the play has something important to say to us now. Wilder was writing just as America was approaching war, and his subject expresses humour, sadness and style coupled with a certain artistic panache. No wonder Olivier decided to direct it in the West End in 1945 with Vivien Leigh, along with George Devine in Troughton's role as Antrobus. Wilder's erudition is a matter of pride for Troughton who describes the unique stylistic qualities of each of the play's three acts. 'There are so many references to the Bible, to great works in literature and philosophy -- we can't follow each and every one, but it makes a wonderfully theatrical piece.'
What about George Antrobus himself, how have you approached his character? 'Ah, the biggest challenge for me -- for us all -- was to learn the New Jersey accent -- apparently there are three forms of New Jersey accent -- you didn't know that did you?' Antrobus 'is the clown of the piece -- maybe not the clown as such, more like the juggler who keeps all the balls up in the air -- all the terrible situations happen to him and his family and he has to bring them through.' Troughton's craggy exterior seems perfectly suited to this character of patriarchal juggler of human experience.
The play is not doom and gloom though. It is definitely a comedy with a family of young actors who double as dancers and musicians, and with a band on stage. In fact, that's what makes it such a challenge. 'It's much easier to direct tragedy than comedy -- David Lan is doing a superb job on this.' Troughton's wife in the play, Maggie Antrobus, is played by Maureen Beattie, who was splendid in Titus in last year's RSC season. Troughton exclaims 'It's such a complicated play to work on, it needs a lot of rehearsal'. It certainly is causing a buzz of excitement ion The Cut at Waterloo .
What do you hope the play will bring to a twenty first century audience? 'It is so apt -- so appropriate to what is happening nowadays. Every day we are nearing our own extinction - hanging on by the skin of our teeth -- not knowing what will happen next. This play says 'don't worry' we will survive, there is always hope.'
Troughton is particularly excited by the prospect of an audience seeing a play about which they know nothing, have no expectations. 'We are all so used to the plays of Shakespeare, it's now just a process of seeing how the same plays are approached -- how different they can be. With this play there are no preconceptions. Today's audience will see something as fresh and as new as the first-time theatregoer in 1942. Just like then, we are living through a time of war and poverty -- we've got to believe that somewhere there's a sense to it all -- so we can start communicating and not fighting.'
It was a pleasure to meet with David Troughton, and a pleasure to sense the commitment and urgency of this fifty year old production on a group of fine actors. The Young Vic is obviously taking risks, or maybe an intellectual gamble, but in a world of risk, what's the harm in being shown that with risk comes hope. I'm definitely looking forward to this theatrical experience.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004