“It is always worth standing up to injustice”; the key message of Tracy-Ann Oberman and David Spicer’s new radio drama is a fitting one to begin a new year in which change is in the air. And while the long drawn-out effects of the pandemic, Brexit and Trump’s presidency will continue to be felt, many are hopeful that 2021 will mark a new social and political phase that will facilitate the emergence of new voices and experiences in our theatres.
In 1967, that opportunity for change was being felt in America as a landmark judicial case – Love vs. Virginia – was determining whether inter-racial marriage should be legalised, and as Civil Rights riots in Detroit raged, director Stanley Kramer persevered with his groundbreaking film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the making of which is the subject of Oberman and Spicer’s story for Radio 4.
That Dinner of ’67 is a radio play about a country at ‘boiling point’ – a phrase used more than once in Oberman and Spicer’s script as the evolution of the movie oppresses each of its key players differently. Making a neat segue from Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard in Concert, the fascination with Golden Age Hollywood and real life behind the movie camera is one that continues to inspire writers captivated, as Oberman and Spicer are, by the contrasts between the illusion of film-making and the more complex and sometimes salacious reality of balancing artistic differences, actor egos and the behind-the-scenes dramas that the finished movie often conceals.
But what drives this play is the notion that cultural output can and should be a place to advance social change by establishing seeming radical scenarios and normalising them through increased familiarity, and by revealing the humanity within and between the characters. Oberman and Spicer’s play – her fourth on the subject of classic Hollywood – is more than a reflection on the dramas of movie making but an example of film driving attitudinal change even before the US court has delivered its verdict on inter-racial marriage, and one in which the social and political importance of their actions is reflected in the weighty experience of the actors on set.
What Oberman and Spicer do so well here is to destroy the artifice of movie making for the audience while reducing the awed-impact of the very famous collection of characters whose experience they recreate, giving them a humanity that grounds this intriguing story. To achieve this Oberman and Spicer employ a versatile scenic structure that simultaneously dramatises the stop-start difficulty of filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner while making time more fluid. Rather than abrupt transitions between scenarios with external announcements, exposition or clunky music to herald a new location, days and even weeks pass in seconds with only a breath between them. Change is indicated instead by the actors who alter their intonation or energy while Oberman and Spicer subtly weave an explanation of the new circumstances neatly and quite naturally into the dialogue.
There is much ground to cover in this 45-minute radio play with a story that could easily expand into a much longer two-act piece, starting with the early days of the shoot when, jumpy about the inflamed activist context and its reactionary response, studio bosses were determine to shut the picture down. All too soon, the audience has been delivered to Spencer Tracy’s final take having journeyed rapidly (though not insubstantially) through the various challenges on set. The success of That Dinner of ’67 is to retain its political anchor throughout while creating an immersive and absorbing short play that moves between several different perspectives and character needs.
The focus is David Morrissey’s Stanley Kramer, the Director whose experience is both the frame and the key driver for Oberman and Spicer’s play, acting as leader, peacekeeper and guardian of the film’s purpose while balancing the various demands and needs of his beloved stars who spill out and around the central drama to give context and depth to the process of shooting this seminal film. And to vary the delivery style, Oberman and Spicer begin with a series of telephone phone calls from Kramer to his cast chivying them along, mixed with conversations set in dressing rooms, on set and at their homes. And while filming is consistently interrupted so that Kramer is frustratedly unable to get through an entire scene without disruption, Oberman and Spicer provide a flavour of the the film with snippets of dialogue in rehearsal and filming as well a powerful early section in which Kramer directs the actors playing John Prentice and Joey Drayton to kiss during a silent scene descriptively narrated by the character of Kramer to help the radio audience to visualise the action. The audible gasps of shock from the crew emphasise just how radical the film was even to those making it.
The character of Stanley is then a vital one; liberal and aware of the unfolding political backdrop but equally unconcerned with anything except getting his movie made as efficiently as possible. The writers make him authoritative and clear in his vision, particularly able to manage his younger stars, enforcing his concept but easily swayed by the demands of Katharine Hepburn in particular. The growing tension between them is certainly entertaining, but also allows Stanley room for growth within the play, eventually summoning the nerve to challenge Hepburn’s dominance and obstructiveness, coming to a mutual understanding.
Morrissey charts that development really well, quietly anchoring the production while facilitating the sometimes showier roles of his co-stars. It is through Kramer’s perspective that the audience enters the story and Morrissey uses that to develop a rapport with the listener, revealing the burdens of managing and doing justice to this sensitive project while building to a brief but effective emotional collapse as Kramer attempts to reconcile his guilt about exacerbating Tracy’s advancing illness with the demands of filming. Some of that manifests as conflict with Hepburn and others within the radio play format, but Morrissey ensures that Kramer retains a genuine affection and respect for his long-term friendship with both Hepburn and Tracy throughout that adds meaningful layers to his personality.
The question of whether Spencer Tracy will complete the film is integral to the drama, played by Kenneth Branagh who lends his own star quality to this rare radio appearance. The stage is set early-on by Oberman and Spicer with the knowledge that Tracy cannot be insured due to his condition so Hepburn and Kramer must put their film fee on the line to cover reshoots if the famous lead is unable to finish the movie. Before the character even appears, the audience is primed to view him as fragile, weakened and entirely dependent on Hepburn’s care as she makes demands about his schedule and availability.
And Branagh both plays to that and undercuts it, presenting a version of Tracy that is certainly weakened in voice and physicality but nonetheless determined to fulfill his contract. Much of what we learn about him is from other characters in which Oberman and Spicer describe how his health affected the shoot, giving him only four hours on set per day and taking him out of reaction shots. Yet, other than physical inflections such as coughing or struggling to speak, Branagh’s Tracy never openly complains or discusses his frailty, focusing entirely on the frustrations of movie-making with people determined to smother or protect him.
Some of the best scenes involve the irritated Tracy railing against the restrictions placed around his filming when he is unable to keep his technical movements and script in mind without the other actors on set to orientate his performance. Frustrated, he complains that he “can’t focus, it’s like acting by numbers” creating tension with Hepburn whose over-protectiveness creates great agitation for Branagh’s determined Tracy. Yet there is tenderness between them, revealed during a late scene at home that gives nuance to a relationship that lasted 26-years, only a snippet of which is revealed in That Dinner of ’67.
As Hepburn, Oberman captures the creaky intonation of the actor’s distinctive voice as well her strength of character that early in the play comes across as disruptive and difficult. Frequently in conflict with her co-stars and fellow creatives, this Hepburn has her own vision for the film, causing consternation by going behind Kramer’s back to the writer as well as giving notes to Daisy Ridley’s Katherine Houghton that the younger star then regurgitates as her own concerns.
Oberman’s often steely performance reflects the concerns of other characters as Hepburn sets herself up as an alternative power force in the play, all but disbarring access between Kramer and Tracy, establishing social clubs and adopting a particular formality in addressing her fellow players. Yet, there are hints that being a woman on set was not an easy position and in a crucial scene, Hepburn breaks up a jovial conversation between Tracy, Kramer and Sidney Poitier to get back to work, a theme that could be further expanded. Yet, the character shows genuine remorse when Tracy orders the fussing Hepburn to “go out and come back as a human being” and their final scene implies the tender and easy romance of their long relationship, while her eleventh-hour rapprochement with Kramer reinforces her own belief in the political importance of the picture.
Sidney Poitier has a small but vital role that could be more expansive given the context of the story, but played by Adrian Lester he is given a psychological breadth that speaks to the conditions of filming in which the star voices his own misgivings about his performance. In a couple of valuable scenes, Poitier reveals a nervousness about bearing the weight of the Civil Rights movements through his character and fears that his role in the movie is becoming untenable – “they’ll burn down the cinemas in Alabama over this and that’s after they’ve lynched the cleaner” he tells Kramer when he draws attention to the falsity of his character’s circumstances. Lester then illuminates Poitier’s expositional background to draw a direct line between the actor’s struggle to adopt an ‘acceptable’ accent and education with the intellectual challenge and possible consequences of representing inter-racial marriage on screen.
Despite being an Oscar-winner by this point, Lester’s Poitier becomes, however, more than a cipher for the play’s political themes, given a rounded humanity by his own feelings of awe and concern working alongside his hero Spencer Tracy. A longer version of That Dinner of ’67 could explore this in more detail, but hints about disillusionment when working with his ailing co-star add a extra layer to Lester’s engaging performance. Through this character, the play (like Sunset Boulevard) has more things to stay about the contrast between Poitier’s advancing and Tracy’s declining Hollywood career and perhaps how differently that affected male and female stars.
Set just a few years after One Night in Miami (recently and brilliantly filmed by Regina King), That Dinner of ’67 captures the essence of change in American race-relations and the role that cultural representation played in reflecting and driving that change as barriers started to break down with the outcome of the Love Vs Virginia case, revealed during the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. That Oberman and Spicer’s version of Stanley Kramer deliberately puts internalised racism at the centre of his film rather than class or other forms of social division gives this atmospheric and absorbing short drama its contemporary relevance and leaves you hoping that when theatres eventually reopen with new voices and stories for 2021, that an expanded version of this play might be among them.
That Dinner of ’67 was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and is freely available from BBC Sounds. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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