By Harley Granville Barker
Directed by Sam West
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Saturday 25th October 2008
This was a bit of a waste, as it turned out. The talent was there, but the style of the piece just didn’t allow me to enjoy it as much as I had before, although the similarities with current events were abundantly clear.
To begin with, I forgot to get the remote for my hearing aids out, and so I missed some of the early dialogue which was just too quiet for me to catch. Having said that, even with my aids on full volume I still missed some of the later dialogue, either because the lines weren’t said clearly enough – the intonation or diction were a little sloppy – or because the set design meant that characters were addressing the far wall in order to speak to other characters, and didn’t project enough to fill even that small space. The amount of coughing was also a problem, and several lines were lost under that fusillade.
Even so I heard enough to get the gist of the story, though I didn’t remember the details from the earlier production we saw at the RSC. The opening scenes of each half were by far the best for us, especially the start of the second half, when the politicians gather to protect one of their own. The story concerns an independent MP, Henry Trebell, who has an affair with the wife of an Irish Catholic. When she gets pregnant by him, she decides to have an abortion, and that operation goes tragically wrong, resulting in her death. If the affair becomes public during the inquest, the bill which Trebell has been drafted into the Cabinet to spearhead, will fail. This bill is to disestablish the Church of England, and remove its connection to and influence on the British Parliament. So, lots of contentious issues there, and the play is even stronger because Trebell decides to kill himself once he loses his government appointment. The bill was his real baby; he comes across as a cold and pretty heartless person apart from his love of change, and especially change in this area. It’s not too surprising that the Lord Chamberlain refused to allow the original version onto the stage, and even this revised version had a long wait to appear in public.
The performances were mostly very good, clarity of speech aside, and my only real problem was in the portrayal of the two lovers. Trebell was too cold to be entirely believable as a man with carnal passions, and Amy O’Connell, the supposed lover, was a strange character, strong then weak, cynical then neurotic, so I could never make up my mind what was going on with her. With this weakness at the heart of the play, or rather this lack of a heart to the play, I found only the scenes with the politicians were really interesting, and the rest were tolerable. Hugh Ross as Cyril Horsham, the newly-elected Prime Minister, was excellent, as were all of his Cabinet, and I enjoyed Bruce Alexander as Gilbert Wedgecroft, a doctor who was closely connected to all these powerful people, and who could give us information on the abortion front, not that the word itself was bandied around much.
Finally, the set was an interesting design. There were three locations, and the design allowed for all of them. The opening scene was in a v-shaped drawing-room, with a door to our left, a corner of the room going back to some French windows, and a bookcase to our right. There was a piano and various chairs and sofas. With very little work, the central part of the set was rotated, and the “v” of the corner became another corner pointing outwards, making an “L” shaped office space. The door became a bookcase, the bookcase became a door, there was a desk and chairs, and voila, we are in Trebell’s office. The politicians gathered in a reprise of the first room, though now done up as a library, and then it’s back to the office for the final scenes. Very economical and effective.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me