By Fanny Charles
KAZUO Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, is a masterpiece intensely exploring the lasting effects of emotional repression.
Filmed with Emma Thompson as the housekeeper Miss Kenton, and Anthony Hopkins as the butler Stevens, it is a study of the impact of doing what your sense of duty dictates at the expense of your own feelings and of others around you. It also provides searching insights into the way memory can distort or flatter the reality of our actions- decades on.
The book has been adapted for the stage by Wiltshire-born playwright and novelist Barney Norris, – hard to imagine anyone more suited. Right from the start, Barney, whose theatrical career began with Salisbury’s Studio Theatre, demonstrated psychological understanding of his characters, of all ages and backgrounds, and a compelling theatricality, creating tension and drama from the realities of ordinary lives.
Directed by Christopher Haydon, the production stars Stephen Boxer as Stevens and Niamh Cusack as Miss Kenton, the senior staff in a grand house in the 1930s. Lord Darlington (Miles Richardson, (who also plays the doctor in the 1950s scenes) is emotionally scarred by the horrors of the First World War and believes it is essential to talk to the German (Nazi) government and to avoid war. He has planned a conference at his house to try to find common ground between the British, the Americans, the French and the Germans. History will label him an “appeaser” – but the past (the 1930s), as LP Hartley acutely observed, was another country, and Stevens believes that everything he did for his employer was right, because he was following instructions.
Miss Kenton, more sympathetic to the conditions of ordinary people (on the staff and outside) fails to pierce through Stevens’ iron-clad sense of duty, and eventually leaves the house to marry a man she hardly knows. Years later, Stevens goes to see her, a wiser and older man. The play parallels his journey to Cornwall to meet her, and the events in Darlington Hall, Oxfordshire, in the 1930s.
As an adaptation, it is as subtle and moving as the original, drawing powerful performances from the two leads, and from the supporting cast who variously play servants, foreign diplomats and villagers. Like the book, the play unfolds the story slowly, allowing the emotional impact of the key scenes to sink in, sometimes dramatically – as when Lord Darlington tells Stevens he must sack the Jewish servants – or painfully slowly, as when Stevens’ father dies while the son is doing his duty.
Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. The citation from the Swedish Academy praised him as a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” This stage adaptation reminds fans of the novel how true that is – and provides a great introduction to his writing for those who are coming new to his work.