Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1
Michael Frayn’s new play is stalked by mortality. It comes in the form of Death, the character in the morality play-within-a-play staged by Frayn’s hero, Jewish impresario Max Reinhardt, creator of the Salzburg Festival. And mortality is also present in the form of Muller, the Austrian Everyman, a sinister presence as Reinhardt’s success is matched by that of the Nazis.
Frayn’s cleverly constructed work is set mainly in Reinhardt’s Salzburg Baroque palace and is interweaved with the impresario’s own morality play. This structure worked brilliantly for Frayn’s postmodern comedy Noises Off, but comes across as a mannered vehicle in a tragedy.
Michael Blakemore’s production struggles to find its feet with a work that attempts to be a biographical tribute charting Reinhardt’s place in theatrical history, while also developing profound themes and questions: the boundary between drama and reality; the thin line between life and death, and whether or not we can ever be called to account for our behaviour.
Roger Allam is winningly charismatic as Reinhardt, the son of a failed businessman, who dragged himself out of poverty with a series of world-beating epics that featured casts of thousands, and often lost as much in money. The arrival of the Nazis sends shivers down the spine, but on a stage as big as the Lyttelton’s, the chance to convey something of the gargantuan theatre for which Reinhardt became known is missed. (Tel: 020 7452 3000)