BBC Radio 4, 24 March 2012
I have to admit that I had not encountered Otherwise Engaged
before. I remember an extract from the original London production being performed on television during the mid-1970s, and
being rather amused when Simon Hench's (Alan Bates') brother Stephen referred to the act of breaking wind during an interview
for an assistant headteachership.
So I came to Peter Kavanagh's production 'cold,' as it were, guided only by the Radio
4 website's description of Otherwise Engaged as "Simon Gray's most successful and best-loved play." As
I listened, I became more and more intrigued as to how the play could be so loved, when all the characters were so patently
un-lovable. Simon Hench (James Purefoy), a successful publisher, spends most of his time listening to his friends and acquaintances,
all of whom want something from him: Stephen (Alex MacQueen), lodger Dave (Rikki Lawton), journalist Jeff (Ewan Bailey), and
Wood (Nigel Planer). Initially it seems as if Simon has sufficient humanity to deal with all of them, but as the production
unfolded, we discovered that he was nothing more than a lonely bully, cultivating a facade of politness to conceal his emotional
shortcomings. The title was an apt one: Simon was too 'otherwise engaged' with surface issues to look into himself and his
inadequacies. In the final conflict with his wife Beth (Tracy Wiles), he wilfully tried to avoid facing the truth about
his marriage, preferring instead to continue living a lie.
The first production in London was directed by Harold Pinter. I could see why Pinter
might have been so interested in it, as Kavanagh's production emphasized the importance of what was not said. All the
characters were perfectly articulate - sometimes garrulously so - but they used words to cover up their feelings rather
than express themselves. When their feelings boiled over, they paused for a moment, and then tried to atone
for what they had previously said with the catch-all apology "Sorry."
Aurally speaking, the production made much of the implied contrast between the Wagner
music - which Simon continually tried but failed to enjoy - and the characters in the play. If Wagner wrote great dramas that influenced
philosophers like Nietzsche (and his concept of the ubermensch), the characters were pygmies pursuing morally
and spiritually bankrupt lives. They thoroughly deserved whatever fate awaited them.
Although described as a comedy, Otherwise Engaged places a considerable
demand on actors, who have to maintain a consistently high level of conversational intensity, while preventing listeners from
sympathizing with them. Kavanagh's cast fulfilled both objectives admirably; I particularly appreciated Nigel Planer's performance
as a whining Wood, the perpetual ugly duckling both at school and in later life.