Waiting for reviews to come in after press night is, I imagine, a fairly nerve-wracking experience for a playwright. But what if the critics’ response to your work could mean the difference between life and death? Such is the case in As A Man Grows Younger, a dramatic monologue based on the life of Italian writer Italo Svevo who, seeing his country in the grips of Mussolini, has written a play discreetly mocking fascism. Now, the morning after opening night, he waits anxiously to see who arrives first – the newspaper boy or the blackshirts.
In reality, this never happened; a foreword in the play text by the writer Howard Colyer explains that in fact Svevo died shortly after the play in question was completed, and he never saw it performed. This forgivable dramatic licence does, however, add a bit of intrigue, and sets the stage nicely for what follows: a rambling but thought-provoking monologue that tells us a lot about the writer himself (I admit to knowing nothing about Svevo before entering the theatre) but also asks some interesting questions about the nature of protest.
David Bromley gives a very polished and assured performance as Svevo, a contradictory and eccentric figure whose anxiety is palpable from the start as he paces the room, frequently checking at the window to see if anyone’s approaching. To keep his mind occupied he reminisces about his life and career, including some enjoyable turns as other characters including his wife, mother-in-law, and good friend James Joyce. There’s humour too in his various eccentricities – among them an obsession with interesting dates, a tendency to ribbit like a frog when nervous, and an absolute inability to give up smoking, which he seems to view more as a point of pride than a weakness.
At just 70 minutes long, the play packs in an enormous amount of detail about Svevo’s past and present, and because it hops very quickly from one subject to another it demands our full concentration at all times – not least because Svevo seems to have lived an extremely full and varied life. Despite this intensity in the writing, Bromley’s energetic performance, directed by Kate Bannister, means it never feels uninteresting or heavy, even in its darker moments. Karl Swinyard’s set is beautifully detailed in its portrayal of Svevo’s study, complete with a board full of dates and mementos that he frequently refers to throughout the piece, and Philip Matejtschuk’s sound design adds further detail, right down to the ticking of a clock.
As A Man Grows Younger is an interesting and well performed historical play about a man caught between his distaste for fascism and his fear of speaking out. Despite knowing the very serious potential consequences of taking a stand, Svevo has chosen to use his new-found platform (he only became widely known, thanks to Joyce, in his 60s) to protest. Whether or not we like him as a man, we have to respect his courage as a writer – and with moments in the play that feel depressingly current, perhaps be prepared to follow his example.