Anthony Calf recalls Plenty premiere excitement

Anthony Calf - photo by The Other Richard
Anthony Calf - photo by The Other Richard

David Hare’s play Plenty famously caused a furore on its first appearance at the National Theatre in 1978.

Anthony Calf, who is appearing in Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival, doesn’t remember the storm, however, quite so much as he remembers the sheer excitement of simply being there: “I have never seen the film, but I did see the play in the original at the Lyttelton when it was first done, and to me it just seems like no time at all. I was 18 or 19 and all I remember is how brilliant it was, and it was the first show I had ever seen at the Lyttelton. It was in the early days of my more mature theatre-going then, and I just remember that it was very striking.

“But what I remember is that it was shortly after the National Theatre had opened and there was so much excitement about going into that brand-new theatre complex, and this whole idea of having three theatres in the same building was just extraordinary!”

In the play, Susan Traherne is a former secret agent. Her heroic work with the Special Operations Executive in Nazi-occupied France brought her extremes of danger, as well as adventures and romance.

20 years on she is living a very different existence in London as the wealthy wife of a diplomat. Her strained marriage and altered circumstances have threatened her identity and trapped her in a destructive nostalgia for her wartime idealism.

Anthony plays Sir Leonard Darwin: “He is the ambassador to Belgium in 1947, and Susan is taken to the embassy to seek help for her lover who has died in a hotel… Sir Leonard very much is a representation of the British Empire before the war. He represents the paternalistic Tory… and he is rather out of his time.

“I think (playwright) David (Hare) was quite keen to burst the jingoistic bubble that England had won the war itself when the truth was that it was a combination of people who had in fact won it. It was not just won through our British heroes.

“David talked at the beginning of rehearsals about how he had grown up after the war when all the war movies were about how remarkable the British were. But the point about it was that it was not just the British. He wanted to set the record straight and he also wanted to illustrate the fall-out of everything on an every-day person. Susan was absolutely not an every-day person during the war by any stretch of the imagination, but she was before she joined the SOE.

“What she does is represent the futility of it all. If you have going to have a war, then socially things have not changed… or rather she wanted faster change. The National Health Service has been created. There was a change to a Labour government pretty much straight after the war, but Susan was wanting more…

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