The Theatreguide.London Review
Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2013
To start off his final year as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre Sam Walters has done what he does so well, uncovered a neglected play from the early Twentieth Century and staged it skilfully so that it is revealed as, if not quite a masterpiece, a small gem well worth the rediscovery.
Susan Glaspell's 1943 comedy-drama is an excellent specimen of that almost-extinct species, the play of ideas. Her story, which is thoroughly engrossing and frequently very funny, is primarily the vehicle for her characters to discuss and debate large issues.
And even if they may be issues more specifically related to her time than ours (which may not be the case), the eloquent interplay of ideas and the sheer pleasure of being in a room where thinking is going on can make for a more satisfying evening than most lighter theatre affords.
Her characters largely come from an extended family whose complex marriage-divorce-and-remarriage history means that everyone is related to everyone else in at least two or three ways.
Without trying to explain the connections, they include a once very influential political theorist now burnt out and depressed by the Second World War, an airheaded woman unable to think beyond her own trivial desires, a wartime government appointee important in Washington but henpecked at home, an idealistic but not very bright young woman, an army doctor home on leave, a salt-of-the-earth cleaning woman given in her innocent way to being wiser than anyone else, and a couple of others.
The plot is generated by the fear that the girl has eloped with the Washington big shot (who is her step-uncle-in-law or something like that), and the generally farcical panics, misunderstandings and overreactions are gradually leavened by the realisation that the family's petty crisis is somewhat overshadowed by the seriousness of the real world outside.
This leads to the question of the older generation's responsibility to the younger. Did they, for all their right thinking and political theorising, leave the world in a mess for their children to clean up at tremendous cost?
Should they admit their failure and retire from the scene, or do they have an obligation to try to help create the postwar future? Should the younger generation turn their backs on them and follow their own idealism, or do they still have something to learn from their elders?
You can see that these questions were very relevant in 1943, and not all that dated now.
It is given to one or two playwrights in a generation to be able to make the open expression and debate of ideas theatrically alive – Shaw, of course, and Stoppard, and maybe Hare and Mamet – and this excellent revival makes it clear that Susan Glaspell is in that select group.
As ever, Sam Walters directs with grace and fluidity on the in-the-round stage of which he is a master and, drawing largely on the pool of actors who make up an unofficial Orange Tree repertory company, gets first-rate performances from his entire cast.
Stuart Fox as the burnt-out philosopher and Julia Hills as his wife ably carry much of the play's plot and emotional weight, and a special salute is due to those whose characters could so easily have slipped into empty stereotypes but who bring them alive – Miranda Foster as the comic airhead, Antony Eden as the straight-arrow soldier, and Auriol Smith as the almost-too-good-and-too-wise-to-be-true charlady.
Oh, the play is a bit overlong, and the family relations are more complicated than they really had to be, and a couple of minor characters are barely sketched in, and everybody talks too much, but that doesn't matter.
It clunks a bit, but that's the unfamiliar sound of a play being about something.
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