The Circle – August 2008

6/10

By Somerset Maugham

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th August 2008

I don’t think I’ve seen this particular Maugham play before, but as with most of his plays, the plot isn’t what you would call complex, so I felt very much at home with the story soon after the start. This isn’t a criticism, as I don’t go to a Maugham play expecting convoluted plots with lots of twists; the gentle teasing out of the human condition with some good laughs along the way is enough for me.

The opening was a little confusing though, as it wasn’t immediately clear who was married to whom. Arnold, the main husband in the story, is actually married to Elizabeth, but his attitude towards her in the opening scene is more that of a father than a husband, and she does look young enough to be his daughter.

We get the relationships sorted out at the same time as we learn about the situation. Arnold’s father Clive has arrived back unexpectedly from France, and will be staying in his lodge in the grounds (we’re talking posh folk here) at the same time as his runaway ex-wife Kitty and the lover she ran off with thirty years ago pay their first visit to the family home since they scarpered. Oops, how embarrassing. It turns out that Elizabeth has some romantic notions about the woman who would have been her mother-in-law, and wants to meet her. As events unfold, it seems likely that part of the attraction is Elizabeth’s own discontent with her marriage, and the possibility she sees of repeating the process with her own new love.

Arnold isn’t at all keen to see his mother again. She left when he was five and he hasn’t seen her since, but he grudgingly accepts his wife’s choice to invite her down. He comes across as a stuffed shirt with very little affection for his wife, but with a penchant for interior design. His father Clive is a smooth operator, who’s adjusted to life without his spouse by deciding to enjoy himself to the full. The scandal of his wife running off with another titled politician, who was also a good friend, meant Clive had to resign his government post, so he’s spent his time, and some of his considerable wealth, having fun. He’s fairly relaxed about everything, and doesn’t mind seeing Kitty again.

The other house guests are Anna, presumably an old family friend, and Teddy, a relatively poor chap who has been working on plantations out in Malaysia and is keen to get back there. He gives us the outsider’s view of English society, and is also the man that Elizabeth adores. Fortunately, he loves her as well, so we’re all set for a jolly romp and the two older lovebirds haven’t even turned up yet!

Actually, I’ve got ahead of myself. Once Elizabeth has explained the situation to Clive, and he’s agreed to stay out of the way (he doesn’t), the final couple arrive. Played by Susan Hampshire (Kitty) and Phillip Voss (Hughie), these are definitely not romantic lovebirds, nestling and cooing at each other. More like an arthritic porcupine with a hangover and a batty old hen with a lipstick fetish (I mean this in a nice way.) These two bicker and argue, Hughie insults everyone who comes in range, and Kitty does her best to get on with everyone, even asking her ex if he’d like to take her back. He declines the offer. Over the three acts, Elizabeth gets to see what can happen to an illicit couple who are shunned by polite company, but still she’s determined to make a new life for herself with a new man.

Seeing what’s up, Clive devises a plan to help Arnold keep his woman. Arnold’s already blown it once, by reacting badly when Elizabeth first confronts him with her choice, but his father’s taught him that the way to win her back is to give her the opportunity for noble self-sacrifice. So Arnold apologises to Elizabeth for his earlier behaviour, and withdraws any objections to her plans, insisting on giving her a generous allowance which she can use if she wants. His only stipulation is that he will not divorce her; but as I recall he gives her the means to divorce him. I remember thinking at the time that she needed to think of the effect her actions would have on him, and now she does. Her heart is wrung with pity, and with additional input from Kitty explaining what a tough time she would have, she decides to do the noble thing and stay with her husband.

Summoning Teddy, who was waiting for her in the summerhouse (Arnold had banished him from the house, but he was staying at a local hotel), she tells him of her decision, and he thinks she’s barking mad. However, through his own straightforwardness, he comes up with the ideal argument to change her mind yet again. He spells out for her that he’s not offering her happiness, or an easy life, or a comfortable one. There will be rows, and loneliness, and boredom, people will snub them, and there will be all sorts of other unpleasantness. But he still wants her to come with him and share his life regardless. What woman could resist? Kitty and Hughie are still there to lend moral support, which they keep undermining through their excitement at seeing two young lovebirds getting together, and Teddy and Elizabeth are soon driving off in Hughie’s car, which Teddy had thoughtfully taken out of the garage, just in case. And to much applause from the audience, as well.

After they’ve gone, Clive turns up feeling well satisfied that he’s sorted out Arnold’s little spot of bother with the missus. The other two keep their knowledge to themselves, leaving him to boast of his cleverness as the sounds of the car engine fade into the distance. And that’s how it ends.

It was a very enjoyable evening, with very entertaining performances from all the cast. Nearly a 7/10 rating, but the play itself doesn’t have quite the scope to get us there. The set was impressive, with a polished black tiled floor, ornate and formal furniture, and a false perspective view at the back showing us a classical style garden shed at the bottom of the garden.

There was a post-show, of course. Jonathan Church was there, along with David Yelland (Clive), Bertie Carver (an excellent lead in Parade, and here playing Teddy), Charity Wakefield (Elizabeth), and later Susan Hampshire (Kitty). Susan Hampshire had appeared in a production of this same play back in the 1970s, also at Chichester, so naturally when she arrived the first question for her was whether the audience response had changed at all in that time. Apparently not. The question of Arnold’s potential homosexuality came up – he doesn’t have sex with his wife, and likes interior design – and the possible connection to Maugham, himself a homosexual. They had decided not to try and bring that sort of idea into the production, as it’s not specified in the text, and they didn’t want to impose it on the play. I brought up the confusion about who was married to whom at the start, and this led to a lot of information on the work that was done to establish the problems in the relationship between Elizabeth and Arnold, and to tie Teddy’s personality in with that. They’d worked very hard to get just the right approach for each of the characters, and I personally think it worked very well. Someone mentioned how similar many of Clive’s lines were to Oscar Wilde’s style, and David Yelland agreed – there had already been a reference to sub-Wildean dialogue in some reviews.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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