A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson Back

A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson has garnered much praise from critics, on a tour which began at the Dr Johnson House in Gough Square and ended most recently at the Edinburgh Fringe. For audiences unfamiliar with Johnson, it provides a lively pocket version of the great man. In eighty minutes we are given a selection of events in his life – his being taken to London as a child to be touched by Queen Anne, his brief stint of school-mastering, his marriage to Tetty, the compiling of the Dictionary, his friendships with Boswell, Garrick and Reynolds, his meeting with George III in the latter’s library, and in short order, his relationship with Mrs Thrale and his death. We are invited to chuckle at his animus towards the Scottish, and to witness his distress when he talks about his melancholy and fear of death.

The script is given as an adaptation by Russell Barr (who originally played Boswell), Ian Redford and Max Stafford-Clark, ‘from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’. It packs in many of Johnson’s best-loved dictionary definitions and aphorisms:  ‘A lexicographer’, ‘oats’, friendships to be kept in constant repair, hanging concentrating the mind, not writing for money being the preserve of blockheads, biographical insight best obtained by a conversation with a man’s servant, and, inevitably, what is indicated by a tiredness of London.

It is basically a two-hander, with Johnson amiably represented by Ian Redford, and versatile understudy Luke Griffin (replacing Russell Barr in the London run) as Boswell. In addition, Griffin gives a series of nicely observed cameos of Mrs Williams, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Wilkes, Dilly and Flora Macdonald. Fortunate audiences also see him play the part of Hester Thrale. On other evenings Trudie Styler appears in the role. Those who share Boswell’s known hostility to Mrs Thrale will enjoy Styler’s presentation of her as a self-conscious, preening flirt. 

Eighteenth-century scholars might like to amuse themselves by thinking how they would devise their own chamber productions, which aim, as this does, to bring to life the relationship between Johnson and Boswell. The late David Nokes, besides his 2009 biography of Johnson, offered a masterly example with his comic radio drama, The Man on the Heath (2005). This wildly inventive piece imagined Johnson and Boswell involved with card-sharps, stranded lovers and a highwayman, together with Boswell’s vividly evoked encounter with an eighteenth-century dental surgeon. Nokes wore his immense scholarship lightly and clearly relished the sheer fun of imagining these fictional encounters. But of course his dialogue was pitch-perfect, and it gave a great sense of the attraction between two such different men.

A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson, however, is restricted by its framing device. We the audience have been invited by Johnson to share the eponymous dish of tea. When Johnson speaks, he must utter a well-known saying, with Boswell reduced to nodding knowingly, or pursing his lips in disapproval at Johnson’s less-acceptable opinions. Having established this, the device itself is largely forgotten. There are decorously pantomimic moments, when a member of the audience is offered tea, or married people invited to identify themselves (cue: ‘triumph of hope over experience’). More frequently, however, we are turned back into a conventional theatre audience. Boswell and Johnson step out of their roles as conversationalists, moving forward to offer quasi-soliloquies. Thus Boswell can give us his pensée about Johnson’s mind being like the Coliseum, or salacious tit-bits from his London Journal. When he elaborates on Johnson’s fabled eating habits (‘his looks are riveted to his plate’), Ian Redford is left looking uncomfortable: it is not evident whether he hears Boswell’s asides, and is offended, or is resisting giving hammy physicality to the description.

Most disruptive of the device, however, is the fact that this is no one particular evening at which we are all companionably drinking tea. At one moment Johnson expresses his desire to see the Western Isles of Scotland, and the next Boswell is reading from his journal account of the visit which has evidently taken place. The scene then dissolves into a short re-enactment of an evening with Flora McDonald. Boswell prompts Johnson to talk about his childhood, but then reads aloud – whether to Johnson or the audience is not clear – from his famous journal entry about his first encounter with Johnson. Indeed, Boswell’s journal-writing must be for any projected dramatization a step to be o’erleaped. Sometimes he is seen calmly transcribing aperçus directly into his leather-bound book; at other times he reads from it (and occasionally, as understudy, is reduced to referring to it for lines of dialogue).  With Boswell thus reduced to stagey journal-writer and conversational stooge, what gets lost is any sense of the men’s companionship. On a couple of occasions Redford and Griffin are allowed playful moments of physicality – their rumbustious rendering of ‘The Highland Laddie’ gives a welcome glimpse of what might have bound the two. But for the most part, Boswell is left looking on with a rather chilly archness which is at odds with his recorded admiration. 

What else is lost? Principally, any sense of Johnson’s intellectual rigour or emotional depth. His deeply thought morality and his clubbability are rendered simply as gleeful gibes at his rivals. There is nothing about his time at Pembroke College, with its choice anecdotes about shabby shoes and ice-skating. His long writing life is inevitably compressed, but we learn very little of his achievements other than the success of Rasselas and the Dictionary (one wishes that in this production Johnson had owned both volumes of his own work). We may leave this production knowing more of Johnson’s sayings, but are unlikely to be able to say what made Johnson great. 

Having said that, Ian Redford ably represents Johnson’s quixotic melancholy through abrupt transitions from urbanity to intense, irrational irritability, and there is a gesture at least towards explaining the condition as inherited from his father, and exacerbated by his fear of death. Inevitably, perhaps, we hear nothing of his deep religious convictions and fears, never hear him muttering pious ejaculations. And alongside these, there is no hint of Johnson’s disturbing tics and mannerisms, which Boswell diagnosed as symptoms of St Vitus’s Dance. Is there any way an actor can suggest his compulsive movements, memorably described by Frances Reynolds as looking like ‘a jockey at full speed’? Or the full extent of his ‘struggling gait’ as of ‘one in fetters’? In the 1993 screenplay, Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of the Hebrides, Robbie Coltrane solves the problem by inventing various odd facial expressions which, while mild, fleeting reminds us why Hogarth first mistook Johnson for ‘an ideot … under the care of Mr Richardson’. In the same film, John Sessions is an inimitable Boswell: by turns earnest and smirkingly self-satisfied. In A Dish of Tea, however, it is not clear that the actors are truly familiar with the characters they are portraying.

Inevitably, few of Johnson’s many friends, enemies and acquaintances make the cut. A single reference to Queeney coincides confusingly with the first flouncing entrance of Hester Thrale. Francis Barber disappears, and the main evidence for Johnson’s humanity is suggested by his fondness for his cat Hodge. Members of the London audience see Hodge only in mimed action: the script indicates we missed the performance of Katie, the Jack Russell, in the role.

It is probably unfair to carp, as A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson has clearly given delight to many, and we should welcome any attempt to introduce Johnson to a wider audience. As a touring piece, it probably worked well in more intimate spaces. It must have been a treat to see it in Johnson’s own garret in Gough Square. Brought to a London theatre, however, there has been little attempt to overcome the whiff of the small touring production, with its drab backdrop, a couple of armchairs and some basic lighting. And what a pity it is that the adapters didn’t think to consult any one of the many Johnson experts – if only to tell them how to pronounce ‘Auchinleck’.

‘A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson’, adapted from the writings of James Boswell by Russell Barr, Ian Redford and Max Stafford-Clark, played at the Arts Theatre, 3rd to 24th September 2011. An Out of Joint production; directed by Max Stafford-Clark.