James Saunders is one of the forgotten playwrights of the 60s, sandwiched between, and elbowed aside by Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard etc. Yet he is a unique voice of the period, and at the time was widely regarded as a rare torchbearer of Absurdism in the British theatre.
‘Absurdism’ and ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ are terms that are widely used and abused, capacious blankets covering figures as diverse as Ionesco and Spike Milligan. The essence of Absurdism is the meaninglessness of the world, and how people cope in the face of it. In this it relates closely to Existentialism, particularly through the seminal figure of Albert Camus.
The search for meaning is at the heart of ‘A Scent of Flowers’. A young woman, Zoe, finds herself in a familiar room; there are flowers, a coffin…. What is she doing here? Gradually it emerges through the gathering of the family that she is dead, then that she killed herself following a disastrous affair with a married man. She is searching for meaning in her death, and gradually through wisps and fragments of memory we realise that the family is responsible, not because they are bad people, but because they are all wrapped in a bubble of selfishness that has killed compassion and kindness. They try to offer some sort of consolation, but it is conditional, blinkered by the need for security, respectability, and distance.
Uncle Edgar, ‘buffoon extraordinary’, yoked to an ancient, silent mother, a memento mori in a wheelchair, is a fantasist, offering little girl Zoe nothing but fairy tales; behind that he harbours a paedophilic longing for the child. She may or may not have had an affair with her half-brother, Gogo, but Gogo can only meet her longing with an offer to take her to a movie to ‘take her out of herself’. Her father is wrapped in his own grief. Perhaps this distance is best expressed by Agnes, her stepmother, whose icy distance is only the most extreme end of a spectrum; “However beautiful and profound and important you think it is, it's no bigger than you are, because it's part of you and you're small, Zoe, like everyone else, small and insignificant. Nobody gives a damn about it.” Grow up, girl, is her message, and when Zoe dies, her easy self-consolation is that she did her best.
For the undertaker, Scrivens, the body, the person, is unimportant. “What’s in the box has no relevance to me. Ritual is everything. You can fill it with peanuts for all I care.” It is left to his assistants, Sid and Fred, to offer Zoe some temporary warmth and comfort before they have to move on to Plot 34.
Saunders is both tough on the essential loneliness of people and tenderly fragile in his depiction of Zoe and her naive dreams. He has an innate understanding of the importance of rhetoric to theatre, and his language is in turns heightened, poetic and capable of comic bathos. He shifts brilliantly between past and present, and controls his fragments of memory within a rigorous dramatic framework which preserves dramatic unities – the laying out; the service; the burial. In the last act, the family are already beginning to forget Zoe and her image fades like an old photo;there is a deep tender sadness as she lays herself to rest, to sleep, in the grave, with no answers but a kind of peace wth herself.
Director Matthew Parker has caught well the mix of domestic realism and fantasy. His cast are in the main excellent. Charlotte Blake as Zoe has charm and freshness, and strikes the right balance between wistfulness and hope. Jodyanne Fletcher Richardson (change that name – you’ll never get it on a billboard) makes much of what could have been a stock figure of fairy story, the Wicked Stepmother. Vocally it’s an extraodrinary performance, each sentence ending with a kind of squeaking bark, as if there’s a demented chihuahua lurking beneath the glacial exterior. Bryan Pilkington’s Uncle Edgar manages to be comic, sinister and desperate all at the same time in a dream of a part, thanks to Saunders’ writing. Only Sam Saunders’s Gogo lacks depth and individuality.
Next year will see the 50th anniversary of the play, which is I suppose as good as peg as you can get to hang a revival on. It’s funny, desolate but above all adult, because it treats the audience with a respect that leaves it to work out meanings, if any, for itself. A truly satisfying evening in the theatre.