Hello! Here you'll find comments on the afterlife of Timothy Leary - his impact on our culture and his portrayal in the media. Consider this a continuation of the biography 'I Have America Surrounded - The Life of Timothy Leary', by John Higgs with a foreword by Winona Ryder.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Six Wives of Timothy Leary - reviewed

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I was kindly invited along to the press night of this play yesterday, and got to meet the cast and writer afterwards. All very enjoyable. My review follows. I never expected to be writing theatre reviews here; perhaps one day there'll be Tim Leary: The Musical...

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THE SIX WIVES OF TIMOTHY LEARY

Etcetera Theatre, Camden High Street London, until Dec 9th

As any Learyphile will tell you, you get the Timothy Leary you deserve. Such is the ever-shifting nature of his character that he is almost impossible for a writer to depict without revealing far more about themselves than about him. Over the last couple of decades he has defeated many a Hollywood screenwriter who has tried but failed to crack the illusive ‘Leary script.’ All of which makes the achievement of first-time dramatist Philip de Gouveia all the more impressive, for his approach to the story is the simplest, smartest and most original that I have ever come across. Simply put, he ignores Tim and tells his story through his wives.

The structure of the play is to give a monologue to each of the six wives, which are then linked by (fictitious) scenes of the women meeting at Timothy’s wake. The women are all very different, and hence unable to avoid comparing themselves with the others, in an effort to try and understand why the same man was drawn to such different people. We then get to appreciate all his complexities and contradictions through seeing him from these six different angles. Leary is physically absent from the play but his presence hangs, Godot-like, throughout the theatre, like a spark in a vacuum. The audience is trusted to form their own image of him from the actresses’ dialogue and emotions, a highly satisfactory process that allows everyone to confirm their own prejudices and opinions in a way I’m sure Leary would have understood and approved of immensely.

That said, the writer can skew this process as much by what he omits as by what he presents, and there were some surprising omissions in the information that we are given about his life. There was no indication that Leary was booted out of Harvard, escaped from jail or was a fugitive in Africa or Europe, for example. The result is the Leary that the play paints seems strangely passive. It appears that, once jailed, he idly waited as the years went by and Rosemary was replaced by Joanna. There are a couple of mentions of being captured in Afghanistan but in the context of the other information given these seem likely to be interpreted as his original arrest. It may be that the writer considers little details more telling than grand adventure, but this does tend to disguise his largeness of character which attracted so many people to him.

You would also never know from this play that Leary was a writer or philosopher, as there is no mention of any of his books or ideas. The sole exception is the phrase “Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out”, which is explained here – as it is in most places – in a vague and slightly inaccurate manner which does little to suggest that Leary had anything useful to say. There is also little evidence of his humour or optimism. A play like this is no place to go into detailed explanations, of course, but it seems strange that this side of him was not acknowledged. The overall effect is to paint him as a reckless opportunist philanderer with bad taste in shoes, which of course he was, although this alone doesn’t fully explain why all these women were attracted to him, or on what levels he connected to them.

All of that, of course, relates to how Leary is perceived these days – a subject that I have an unhealthy interest in, and not something of such importance for the rest of the audience. What is far more important is how it works on its own terms; as a play. In terms of what matters here – dialogue, direction and acting – everything succeeds with an easy confidence that it is almost unseemly for what was only the play’s second ever performance. From Marianne’s opening monologue at a 1950s party – a terrific piece of writing given the note-perfect performance it deserved – the play instantly engages and is well paced to the end. The shifting time periods were suggested nicely and the casting is uniformly excellent with Nena, in particular, having what appears to be an uncanny family resemblance to her role. Rosemary’s wardrobe may not have captured her sense of style, but her monologue, delivered as a speech at a ‘Free Tim’ rally, more than makes up for this and is one of the highlights. The depiction of Joanna as written is perhaps a little caricatured as ‘the neurotic bitch’, but she does get the best lines in compensation, and the actress is able to give her more empathy during the later scenes at the wake. There was however a subtle suggestion that Joanna may have been involved in the FBI’s capture of Tim in Afghanistan, which irked me partly because I consider that bollocks, but mainly because the historic origins of that rumour were fairly misogynistic and that for me did not sit well in such a female-focused play.

If there is a more significant criticism to be made, then it is the tone of the final scenes. The play turns dark during Joanna’s monologue – set during a visit to Tim during his darkest hours in Folsom – but then doesn’t then move on from that bleak, sombre tone when it covers the remainder of his life. The wake itself reminded me of Mike Leigh’s ‘Abagail’s Party’ in places, being terribly English where perhaps it should have been more Irish, with tears and a good fight to clear the air and lift the mood. Again, this may be down to my own prejudices and my expectation that you can’t tell Leary’s story without some laughs and joy among the aftermath and chaos. Having met the cast afterwards, however, there does seem to be an awareness of this and it may well be addressed in the future.

So, overall, a great success that bodes well for the play having a life beyond this first run. LSD-evangelists and those who hold Tim up as a personal hero may not get the Leary they prefer but, with this cast, Philip de Gouveia has realised his own personal Leary more stylishly than anyone.


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And for another review, this one from The Stage, click below:

http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/18938/the-six-wives-of-timothy-leary


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