Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Review The Philanderer

The Philanderer
by Bernard Shaw

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Poor Leonard (an elegantly gawky bearded hipster Rupert Young). He's had his wicked way with two women. Cool blonde widow Grace Tranfield (svelte Helen Bradbury), daughter of a drama critic (meticulous old fogey Mark Tandy), and fiery redhead Julia Craven (curvy Dorothea Myer-Bennett) whose Dad is retired Colonel (Michael Lumsden).

And now poor Leonard is forced to plot to break off at least one relationship and his conduct over the second seems more than dubious, leaving a lot to be desired.

Or maybe Leonard's not so poor - we never learn the state of his finances. But in the cold light of day he's a pretty nasty piece of work despite a polished, witty literary exterior.

This isn't the latest Netflix, Sky or Amazon boxed set or even a French farce.

This is one of the Plays Unpleasant of Mr G Bernard Shaw (he never liked the "George"), first performed privately in 1905 to avoid the censor

Bring to the fore the "New Woman" at a time when women only could divorce if fault was proven or the man, in the words of the play, was a drunkard, criminal or imbecile. Indeed, the seedy profession of private detectives grew out of the courts and divorce cases.

Directed by Paul Miller, with a pitch perfect cast, this is an updated staging of Shaw's early play on a marble tiled-in-the-round stage, simply but cleverly furnished, with a subtle mash up of delicious costumes (designer Simon Daw, costume supervisor Clio Alphas).

Isabel Waller-Bridge provides a light touch but effective score and this three-act play also manages smooth location changes in the manner of the recently-seen I've Been Here Before with two intervals.

Leonard is a  - wait for it, it's a juicy word! - philanderer. That's not philanthropist  - many would say quite the opposite. Philanderer took on the meaning in the 18th century, the era which witnessed the birth of the often "sentimental" British novel for a female market, of a serial womanizer. 

Until then philanderer had the meaning, from the Greek, of "fond of men", according to my internet resources. Perhaps Enlightenment marketeers  realised such a rolling-off-the tongue word was perfect for the bodice rippers devoured in private by ladies in their boudoirs!

As for Leonard, he is a wisecracking but charming vulture who feeds off the women including Sylvia (Paksie Vernon), Julia's decidedly unsentimental younger sister,  who are all of "advanced views" and members of that "cock and hen" (note the order, not hen and cock) society, The Ibsen Club. 

This is a society where Henrik Ibsen is viewed as Superman (there is a glorious well-oiled design joke which we won't spoil). Where every member is required to be equally nominated and guaranteed by a man and woman in the name of equality and a hollow-eyed runner (Joe Idris-Roberts) brings the latest messages. For centuries before "Nordic Noir" hit our screens, another Norwegian ruled the roost. 

And with Dr Paramore (Christopher Staines) who has condemned Grace's retired colonel, a veteran of Indian and Sudan campaigns, to an early death from his eponymously named disease, Shaw can't resist a potshot at one of his favourite subjects, The latest medical scientific theory in the British Medical Journal, this time that of malign microbes This later surely influencing this Monty Python sketch?!

TLT and her vehicle of choice, with the dangerous liaisons' tinted windows hiding Lord-knows-what ;), did wonder though whether this very cleanly designed and acted version of The Philanderer could be more  - well - low down and dirty. Or in the words of journalist Rachel Cooke's programme introduction in another context, could afford to loosen the stays of both women and the vain men.

After all, the origin of Ibsen's A Doll's House, a clear influence, isn't the nicest of stories. According to the play's Wikipedia entry, Ibsen himself even played a role in the real life downfall of the woman writer who inspired it

And the language of money, share dealing, gambling, the court room, the buying and selling of women and even copyright, rather than the language of love, infects The Phlanderer's script. 

Meanwhile Leonard, a Jack Tanner prototype, increasingly watches like a puppet master the domino chaos he sets off. 

Furthermore, the implication by the end is that women can only get their rights as women and as writers  by marrying a male writer and, like the pension of the time endowed in the husband,  a financial portion by supporting the husband's success rather than given their own royalties!

Shaw's lines when characterful debate and rhythm is drained out of them, can lead to accusations of the prolix. And for an audience more used to short attention span current day scripts, there are always occasions where the concentration may lapse during arguments. 

But this production manages to crack Shaw's characterful conversational, debating style, even if the play itself, sometimes a deliberate trot through different literary styles, is not as polished in verbal sparring as, say, the later St Joan.   

While some of Shaw's work is in the public domain in Canada and the USA, the world rights reside with the Society of Authors until 2020. 

We can therefore expect more of the patter of tiny feet of experimental Shaw productions. And also judging from Lawrence After Arabia, portrayals of Shaw himself, long lived from the Victorian times to the late twentieth century. So the Shaw Society may well find itself in demand! 

In the meantime this is a classy, highly enjoyable, clear production of an early work heedfully modernised, from which the audience emerged with smiles on their faces. A green light.

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