Educating Rita. Performed by the Moscow English Theatre (MET)

11.10.17

Rita was educated in Moscow for all of two days this season – October the 8th and 9th at the Mayakovsky Theatre. MET is thinking about bringing the play back in the spring of 2018 and also touring with it around Russia. The Moscow production was directed by Gillian King. She has a long line of accomplishments behind her, including directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company and for repertory companies in the UK with productions including: Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, Noel Coward’s ‘Cavalacade’, and she co-directed MET’s last production of David Greig’s ‘The Letter of Last Resort.’

Writer Willy Russell was born in Liverpool in 1947 and, like Rita, left school with no qualifications and worked for a while as a ladies’ hairdresser. To a certain extent, the play can be seen as being about his (and possible our?) own life journey/ies; the struggle to become accepted within the ranks of the hyper-critical ‘educated classes’, only to realise how much he/we had/have lost in the process. Willy Russell became almost a household name in the UK after his musical about the Beatles: ‘John, Paul, George, Ringo …and Bert’ was staged in 1971. One of his plays: ‘Blood Brothers’ (1983) ran for 23 years, and others have been turned into successful Hollywood films.

Russell’s seemingly innocent comedy is really about the acquisition of knowledge which brings self-awareness, but which also robs us of our innocence. Rita makes us aware of our own hypocrisies. In this ideological and sociological mine field, Russell makes us laugh, however not so many of the mostly Russian audience got the many subtle and cutting jokes, which is the key problem with acting English language plays in a non-English language environment. Frank, that unassuming alcoholic poet who understands everything in a deep way – in many ways Frank is so, so…Russian, is played by Jonathan Bex. Jonathan is Frank in a very natural, unassuming way, or perhaps that is representative of Jonathan’s acting skills, and also possibly reflective of the changing contemporary interpretation of Russell’s genius.

In the 1980s, Michael Caine could play Frank as being a stronger character, and Rita, played in that film production by Julie Walters is the vulnerable one. In this production, it is Frank who comes across as being vulnerable, not Rita. Today’s Rita is played quite brilliantly by Emma Dallow. Emma is a Mancunian, so she can slip between ‘propa’ English and dialect easily, has a powerful stage presence, and is an established actress in the UK. Rita is now the victim, damaged by ‘education’ but happy; whilst Frank is left to sink into alcoholic oblivion in a far-off land. Willy does give us some respite from the implications of this ‘comedy’ by allowing Rita to cut Frank’s hair in the final scene. The same performance in London might have produced quite different messages.

Hats off to the Moscow English Theatre for pulling this amazing performance off. We await Frank and Rita’s return. Rumour has it that MET needs a producer to organise a tour of the play around Russia and beyond.

John Harrison © RussiaKnowledge.com