The opportunity to see The Philanderer
after last year’s Widowers’ Houses
was one that I took up with enthusiasm but, also, with determination to make allowances for an early work and the imperfection that might entail. I wonder if Mrs Warren’s Profession
, the last and best known of Plays Unpleasant
, will come to Richmond in due course.
If anything, The Philanderer
is a weaker piece than Widowers’ Houses
; though that impression might have been influenced by the (imo) rash decision to set the production in the present day (the two fathers have clearly been to see the current West End production of How the Other Half Loves
– and the Orange Tree is such an intimate space that we are surely meant to spot the title on the programme that one of them throws on the table).
First things first, though; there are intrinsic weaknesses in the play. For one thing, the famous Shavian wit is not nearly as polished as in, say Man and Superman
. But there are more serious problems – such as the author’s invention of the Ibsen Club, whose constitution appears to have been drafted to suit the play’s plot developments. Ostensibly an institution devoted to absolute gender equality (applicants have to be sponsored by a member of each sex who declares that the candidate is not a ‘manly’ man or a ‘womanly’ woman; and ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ behaviour is grounds for expulsion); but when Shaw wants to stage a ding-dong between Grace (Helen Bradbury) and Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) we suddenly hear that ‘when two ladies quarrel in this club, it is against the rules to settle it when there are gentlemen present’.
There are other niggling anomalies but none so bothersome as the sheer implausibility of the events of the play taking place any time in the 21st century. On a trivial level, in the aforementioned scene Grace really does refer to ‘ladies’ – a term that would surely be avoided these days. Furthermore, the idea that, progressive as he undoubtedly was, Ibsen’s name would be used these days for a club claiming to embody the cutting edge of equality is bizarre. Leonard Charteris (a man of 40) is a founder member so we can’t pretend the name is of purely historical provenance). Most unfortunate, though, is the decision to add Shaw’s original final act as a sort of epilogue or an extension to Act 3 (which is how the ‘running time' notice describes it, even though the addition more than doubles the length of Act 3). While it’s true that the customary, amended, ending is rather tame and conventional it’s easy to see why Shaw was persuaded to make the amendment even before the play was published. This is not A Doll’s House
with its radical ending butchered to spare the feelings of a German diva; but a sermonising, dramatically feeble, effort whose absence is no real loss to the theatre. It’s true that the original finale is more recognisably Shavian and contains blistering attacks on matrimonial and divorce law; but the amended one is shorter and, for me at least, brevity is the soul of dramatic integrity in this case; especially as the ‘fourth’ act moves us on four years from the events of Acts 1-3 which take place on two consecutive days. Whichever ending you prefer, though, the decision to give us the original ending in a modern setting was very odd. It simply doesn’t make sense to be discussing the confounded difficulty of getting a divorce including, I kid you not, the advantages of taking up temporary residence in a South Dakota hotel, when the laws that created such a situation eased to exist long before the first production of How the Other Half Loves
, let alone the current one. I really can’t see any advantages of the present day/ modern dress approach that compensate for these absurdities. The play still has relevance as it’s easy enough to tick off ways in which gender relations are as fraught now as they were in the early 20c but, in my view at least, that is better done if we have a setting in which the details make sense.
The set is admirably simple and uncluttered but with neat little touches such as a different item suspended overhead for each Act. The chandelier of Cuthbertson’s drawing room gives way to a bust of Henrik to represent the Ibsen Club and finally a medical surgery lighting rig for Dr Paramore’s consulting room. There are some fine performances, especially from the two main female characters, Helen Bradbury as the super-cool Grace and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as the ultra-competitive Julia. Caught between them is the philanderer himself, Rupert Young as Leonard. Young tries his best to convey the kind of charm that might have attracted these two very different women; but I’m afraid the appeal is still a bit of a mystery to me. Christopher Staines does well as the diffident Dr Paramore but, understandably, struggles with the character change imposed on him in the final Act. Paksie Vernon as Julia’s bluff sister Sylvia – a seemingly model member of the Ibsen Club who insists on being called by her surname, even by family friends, on club premises. As the two fathers Mark Tandy as Cuthbertson and Michael Lumsden as Craven give decent portrayals of parents who seem to accept and go along with, even if they can’t understand or approve of, ‘modern’ ways. Which leaves just Joe Idris-Roberts – shown in the cast list as Spedding (a character who doesn’t appear except in the original ending) but surely doubles as the Page in Act 2.
Runs for another week if you want the opportunity to see this rarity:http://www.uktw.co.uk/London/Orange-Tree-Theatre/Play/The-Philanderer/L017123782/