The Woman Hater – January 2008

8/10

By: Frances Burney

Directed by: Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 3rd January 2008

This cough has lasted far too long. First it stopped me enjoying the Richard II and Henrys in November, now it’s stopped me fully enjoying this world premiere of a play written 200 years ago. But not completely! Despite having to leave about half-way through the first half, I did manage to follow some of what went on (Steve brought me up-to-date in the interval) and saw the second half in full, so I can safely say this was a splendid production, and a very enjoyable play, which deserves to be installed in the regular canon alongside other Regency favourites.

The plot is anything but simple. Sir Roderick (Clive Francis) is the woman-hater of the title. His wrath was aroused against the fair sex when he was jilted by a lady, who instead married Lord Smatter, becoming Lady Smatter (Auriol Smith). Her brother, Wilmot (Michael Elwyn), married Sir Roderick’s sister, Eleonora (Joan Moon), despite Sir Roderick’s attempts at persuading them to call it off –  having been jilted himself, he seemed to want others to experience the same suffering. Wilmot and his wife left for the West Indies, where their baby daughter Sophia (Amy Noble) was born. Eleonora, seeing how another man was infatuated with her, decided to sail for England with their daughter, leaving a note with the family nurse (Vilma Hollingbury). Nurse decided to take advantage of the situation, and substituted her own daughter Joyce (Jennifer Higham) for Sophia, while destroying the letter left by Mrs Wilmot explaining the situation. Naughty nursy. As Eleonora’s admirer coincidentally departs at the same time, Wilmot naturally assumes that his wife has run off and left him to bring up their daughter. Eventually, still stricken with grief, he returns to England.

Meantime, Sir Roderick has banned women from his life, more successfully than the men in Love’s Labour’s Lost, it must be said. He’s picked a young man, Jack Waverley (Dudley Hinton) to be his heir. Jack’s father, Old Waverley (David Gooderson) is a cousin of Sir Roderick, and is very keen for his son to inherit the old man’s estate. But Jack is totally frustrated with the conditions imposed by Sir Roderick – not to see or speak with any woman, never to marry, etc. It’s more than his youthful blood can stand. And so the play opens (yes, that was just the back story) with Jack venting his spleen to his father and then to a servant, Stevens (Kieron Jecchinis), and disclosing his intention to marry a rich dowager within a week, just to spite Sir Roderick.

One of the things I like about Jack is his willingness to face facts. He knows he’s not used to working, doesn’t care for study, so the only option is to get rich quick, and live a life of idle pleasure. Too few career advisors offered this as a viable option when I was at school, sadly. (Although the celebrity get-rich-quick route does seem to be coming back into fashion with today’s youngsters.) Jack has seen a lovely young lady walking with her mother in a lane nearby, and he’s so desperate for a woman, he’d just as readily have the mother as the daughter. However, prudence prevails, and he recognises the need to find a wealthy, repeat wealthy woman to marry, and then he can do what he likes. As to the possibility of him actually loving an elderly woman – if she’s got money enough, he’ll love her to bits. An attitude the Puritans might disapprove of, but I found it refreshingly candid.

Stevens reminds him that Lady Smatter lives nearby, is old, and very wealthy, and a widow. As she’s one of those ladies who’s fond of learning, poetry and the arts, Jack reckons he can woo her pretty smartish, and be off to church in a trice. He’s not wrong, but the playwright has a few tricks up her sleeve before that happens.

Lady Smatter may revere learning, but she has a bit of difficulty remembering where her frequent misquotations come from. In this, she’s a perfect counterpart to Mrs Malaprop. While a modern audience can’t be expected to know the lines she’s botching together, nor their sources, her general air of serene certainty, followed by gentle confusion, was a delight to watch – a splendid performance by Auriol Smith. (Actually, it’s debatable whether a contemporary audience, had they had the chance to see the play, would have known the references either.) Anyway, she falls for Jack’s pretence of loving poetry, and isn’t averse to the idea of shacking up with a virile young man. Perhaps women writers are a bit more blunt about these things, or maybe just more aware of them, but I noticed several areas where Frances Burney went further than her male contemporaries, and it made for a better play, in my view.

Wilmot and his daughter now appear, and he’s in a right state. (Just to be clear, this daughter is Joyce, whom everyone except her mother believes is Sophia, so I’ll refer to her as Sophia/Joyce during this period of confusion.) It becomes clear very quickly that Wilmot’s a melodrama queen, taking the emotional ups and downs of life to extremes that few people know exist. This is aided by his use of flowery dialogue that would be laughable if it wasn’t making a humorous point. In his concern for his daughter’s welfare, and his guilt over not taking better care of her, he leaves her completely alone for ages, reading, or rather looking at, a book, while he paces jerkily up and down, metaphorically tearing his hair and beating his breast. It’s a nicely judged performance, and provides a lovely contrast to Sophia/Joyce’s behaviour when he finally leaves her on her own. She leaps up, takes off her dowdy coat dress, and “frisks” about the room in her jeans and tee-shirt, determined to enjoy herself. Nurse and the other servants, Bob and Henny Sapling, try to calm her down, or rather, Henny and the nurse do. Bob is a quiet character, mainly because Henny doesn’t let him say a word, as she reckons he’s too stupid to understand what’s going on, but he’s the one Sophia/Joyce gets on with best. She hates books, wants to have a good time, and she’s definitely one of the more enjoyable people in the play.

The various characters having been set up (we’ve also seen Sir Roderick rushing around, being crotchety and argumentative, and Mrs Wilmot approaching Lady Smatter to explain her innocence in leaving Wilmot), we now get a series of encounters and misunderstandings which give us a very funny hour or so. The real Sophia, a very well-behaved girl, meets Old Waverley, and believing him to be her uncle, Sir Roderick, appeals to him for support. He, knowing nothing of who she is, thinks she’s a prostitute, and that her mother is the one sending her out to ply her trade. While he’s censorious, he’s not immune to her charms, and decides to marry her. His son Jack is also bent on marriage with Sophia, and dresses up in Stevens’ clothes to visit her cottage, where his father has just had a confusing encounter with Mrs Wilmot. (She shares her husband’s melodramatic temperament – they would have gone down a bomb in Victorian times, from what I know of the period.) Jack spends some time avoiding his father, which is difficult in such a small room, and for once a father manages to recognise his son in disguise – is this a first?

Fearing that the game will soon be up, the nurse takes Sophia/Joyce to visit her supposed uncle, Sir Roderick, to see if she can get some money out of him. He’s actually won over by her direct ways, and then the real Sophia comes along, only to be rejected as an impostor. Sir Roderick decides to marry Jack off to Sophia/Joyce as a condition of his inheritance, much to Jack’s dismay.

Wilmot, having discovered prior to the play that his wife hadn’t left him for another man, has learned that she’s now living in the same village, and heads off to speak to her. Now he’s torn between the potential rapture of a reconciliation, and the horrendous prospect of repudiation. His emotional teeter-totter was great fun to watch. Then he learns that she’s living in the cottage with her daughter, and he assumes that she has in fact run off with another man, not the man he originally supposed, and is now living with her illegitimate daughter. Another torrent of emotions sweeps him away, but only to the corner of the stage, where Mrs Wilmot catches sight of him as she comes out looking for Sophia. They have a wonderfully melodramatic scene together, and gradually, as all the characters arrive on stage (except the doubled parts, obviously), the misunderstandings are resolved, and Joyce steps forward to confirm the real Sophia’s identity. Even Sir Roderick gets caught up in the general happiness, and ends up with his original intended, Lady Smatter. Joyce is happy, as she can now marry Bob, and Wilmot promises to take care of her. Sophia says little, but is a good and virtuous girl, and will not only do what she’s told, she’ll want to do it as well. All ends incredibly happily. Ah.

Given the thirteen actors involved in this production, it’s a wonder there were no injuries as they dashed about the place. Apart from the last scene, there were never more than about five actors on stage at any one time, though. The only furniture was a couch, a table and a chair, all painted to appear ornately gilded. To represent the final scene outdoors, some leaves fell down from above, which was a nice touch. I like it simple, although I wouldn’t mind seeing a lavish production of this as well – the full-on costumes and sets can give an extra dimension to some of these plays, reminding us just how superior these badly behaved people think themselves to be.

The performances were all nicely judged. Wilmot in particular was a tricky part to play, as his large histrionics have to be fitted into a small space, but Michael Elwyn pitched it beautifully. The costumes were an eclectic mix of period and present day. At the post-show discussion, this seemed to have caused a lot of confusion, but I found it quite liberating. It certainly emphasised the change of attitude when Sophia/Joyce flung off her coat dress to reveal the t-shirt and jeans.

I enjoyed this play enormously, what I saw of it, and it deserves more attention.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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