Netflix Update No. 23: “Daphne Laureola”

November 9, 2009

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JOAN PLOWRIGHT

On the theory that there’s no such thing as too much of Joan Plowright, we watched “Daphne Laureola,” a 1978 British television production of a 1949 play by James Bridie, actually a Scottish physician born Osborne Henry Mavor. Sir Laurence Olivier, who rated this play as one of the six best in the 20th century, appears in this adaptation along with Plowright, who was his third wife.

In this romantic comedy, Olivier plays the elderly Sir Joseph Pitts and Plowright plays his 50-year-old wife whose first name — perhaps deliberately — is never given. When Lady Pitts dines alone at a restaurant in London’s Soho district, her overindulgence in alcohol launches her into a uncontrolled monologue that alternately amuses and horrifies the other patrons. The one exception is Ernst, a young Polish student who becomes infatuated with her — comparing her place in his life to that of the nymph Daphne in the life of the Greek god Apollo.

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LAURENCE OLIVIER and JOAN PLOWRIGHT in "Daphne Laureola"

Lady Pitts collects the names and addresses of seven of the customers — including Ernst — and promises to invite them to tea. She does, but by the time the appointed hour arrives, she has forgotten not only the invitations but the guests and the circumstances under which she met them.

Ernst has not forgotten, though, and his pursuit of an ill-defined relationship with Lady Pitts — and the manner in which Sir John and his lady deal with Ernst — provides the substance of the play.

The cast, which I believe was chosen by Olivier, is outstanding. Clive Arrindell as the deadly earnest young man who is blind to the absurdity of his situation gives a bravura performance. Bryan Marshall has a strong turn as Vincent, the Pitts’ despicable house servant and driver who doesn’t approve of Ernst nor, it seems, of Sir John, Lady Pitts, or their marriage. Olivier is moving as the baronet who knows his life is nearing its conclusion, and Plowright, of course, is Plowright. Lady Pitts is designed to befuddle the other characters and the audience, and Plowright is the woman to make her ladyship do it.

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DAPHNE LAUREOLA

In the course of the play, Lady Pitts instructs Vincent to have a daphne laureola plant installed in the garden at her home, a plant Sir John insists will die because it has been planted in the fall. Lady Pitts refers to the plant as a laurel, but the daphne laureola is not a laurel — in fact, it’s a noxious weed, which was perhaps an obscure insinuation by the playwright.

The clash in this play between the nearly insane romantic obsession of the young student and the decidedly non-poetic disposition of the people around him provides the fun, the drama, and the heartbreak of this work.

We stumbled on this in the kind of accident that often occurs on a site like Netflix, and we’re glad we did.

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