The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we have filed our reviews of two past productions of Honour on this page.
If I begin by saying that Joanna Murray-Smith's play is soap opera raised to a very high degree, I am identifying both its weaknesses and its strengths, and need only add that it is also a vehicle for some very fine acting.
A man in late middle age leaves his wife for a younger woman, and Murray-Smith makes no attempt to disguise the banality of the situation or to provide any surprise twists. Instead, she explores it intimately to rediscover the reality beneath the cliche, illuminating the moral and emotional complexities with a remarkably balanced judgment.
An eminent intellectual being interviewed by a young journalist is attracted by her youth, her intellectual energy and her absolute self-confidence, and finds himself suddenly aware of how his life has lost these qualities. Inevitably he confuses the intellectual and spiritual with the sexual, and leaves his wife of 32 years for the younger woman.
The wife, meanwhile, has come to recognize the peace and subdued passion of their maturity as an accomplishment rather than a loss - she absolutely rejects the younger woman's accusation that she sacrificed her own potential to serve her husband's career - and is shaken by its destruction, as is their grown daughter, who only now realises how much of her security and identity is built on assumptions about her parents. And the younger woman undergoes some changes as well, discovering that life is not as simple as her callow confidence had thought.
As I said, there is nothing new there, and in clumsier hands than director Roger Michell and his cast's it could play like a particularly unimaginative episode of any TV soap. But, seeing that the play's strengths lie in making us believe in and care for these characters despite their familiarity, director and actors quietly worm their way into our attention and emotion, so that the shock of recognition is that, however cliched the situation, real people with real emotions are living it.
Much of the weight rests on Corin Redgrave and Eileen Atkins as the older couple, and fortunately both are masters of underplaying, conveying more in a silence or an unfinished sentence than others could in flashier acting. He makes it clear that this ordinarily facile speaker is honestly struggling with emotions he doesn't have words for and hasn't felt in years, making us believe that he is leaving his wife with the girl, not for the girl, hoping that the younger woman will take him back to his own passionate potential.
He's wrong, of course, and Redgrave lets us see that as well, without losing our sympathy. Meanwhile Atkins creates a woman of quiet strength, so that even when her world, her security and her sense of self are thoroughly overthrown, we never really doubt that she will survive. At the same time that she sees how wrong-headed he is, she refuses to be cast in the role of victim or villain.
As the younger woman, Catherine McCormack has the difficulty of playing a role that is written a bit too much as simple villain, and must fight to hint at a youthful ignorance beneath her cold self-righteousness and later to show how unprepared she is when her certainty is shaken by her own emotional journey. Anna Maxwell Martin is the daughter whose instinctive response is that everything is happening to hurt her, and admirably makes that innocent egocentricity understandable and sympathetic.
In its reliance on pregnant silences and half-finished sentences, Murray-Smith's script occasionally conjures up echoes of both Pinter and Mamet, generally to her disadvantage, and the weakest moments, fortunately brief, play like parodies of one or the other. The power of the play, and of the performances, lies not in any originality, but in making the overfamiliar movingly real.
Joanna Murray-Smith's play, first seen at the National Theatre a couple of seasons back, is a fresh look at what is admittedly a hackneyed situation - a middle-aged man leaving his wife of 30 years for a younger woman.
The author's insight is that for the people involved the situation is real, and even knowing that they are acting out a cliche does not protect them from real and complex emotions.
The man is a writer who has settled comfortably into being a bit of a media hack, the woman is a poet who quite happily traded her career for the real satisfactions of being a wife and mother, and the other woman is an ambitious young writer whose undoubted love for the man is not completely free of careerism.
He is attracted to her because she awakens in him the passion and ambition of the young artist he once was; his wife has to face for the first time the question of whether the trade-off she made was worth it; and the girl must face for the first time the grown-up situation of being responsible for the happiness or unhappiness of others. (There's also the couple's grown daughter, shaken by the loss of a security she had always taken for granted.)
The National Theatre production examined all this with cold objectivity, and paradoxically found a moving human story there. This new staging by David Grindley softens the edges in almost every way, with mixed results.
Where Eileen Atkins invested the wife with a dignity that could express itself in frigid rage, Diana Rigg's character invites sympathy for her real pain at being abandoned. She also has a warm sense of humour which means that even at her angriest, part of her is enjoying the wit with which she can express her disdain. In a way, that weakens her moral high ground, and she comes across more as the cliched abandoned wife than as a righteous survivor.
Something similar happens to Martin Jarvis's husband. Though the play makes it clear that the man is really drawn to the imagined image of a revitalised self, and has just attached that yearning to the girl, Jarvis plays it more as soap opera romance, again pushing his character toward cliche rather than away from it.
Jarvis does movingly capture the man's desperate hunger, whatever it's for, in part by walking through the entire play in a vaguely leaning-forward posture, as if yearning to grasp at something before him.
Despite a distracting lisp, Natascha McElhone is most successful at the younger woman's callowness, whether expressed in her unearned self-confidence in the early scenes or her unpreparedness for what she's gotten herself into later. What she doesn't convey very well is the promise the man sees in her of rejuvenating energy, again contributing to the sense that all that's going on here is a bit of middle-aged lust.
The strengths of Murray-Smith's play lie in the way it makes a hackneyed situation real and human. But the audience here reacted entirely in soap opera mode, seeing Martin Jarvis as despicable philanderer, Natascha McElhone as slut and Diana Rigg as pathetic victim. Oddly, by trying to soften and humanise the characterisations, this production just makes them seem all the more cliched.
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Review - Honour - National 2003