The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Winter 2015-2016
Harley Granville Barker's 1907 play is a serious drama with important themes, strong and well-drawn characters and several engrossing and moving scenes. It is also, by modern standards, overlong, meandering and frequently in danger of dissipating all its power by wandering off into empty filler.
To enjoy this National Theatre production most fully, you're going to have to cherry-pick all the best moments and just sit patiently through the rest.
A rising-star politician who is working on truly culture-changing legislation is involved in a personal scandal. Should the party unite around him to protect his career and potential accomplishment, or must they disown him to protect themselves?
Barker makes it clear that everyone involved is honourable and serious, and even those who oppose each other politically respect each other and the parliamentary process. But they're also all realists, and understand that the first obligation of any politician is to get into power, and the second to stay in power.
So, with Barker almost as good as his friend Shaw at making the exchange of ideas come theatrically alive, the play's discussions of honour, morality and realpolitik are convincingly serious, meaningful and dramatically engrossing. So are the debates on the central character's legislative project – the then-timely idea of disassociating the Church of England.
(Note to non-Brits: unlike the American separation model, the Church and State of Britain are closely interconnected. Barker's hero plans to break the connections, freeing the Church to devote its attentions more to social and educational services than theology – a development that, ironically, has pretty much happened on its own in the past century.)
Small spoiler alert: the scandal has to do with a mistress, a pregnancy and a botched abortion. And Barker, perhaps even better than Shaw at the human stories, makes this personal tragedy real and moving, so the play doesn't just operate on an intellectual level.
There's a quite attractive scene of the lovers getting together with a 'We're adults and know what we're doing' absence of soppiness, a strong mutually-respectful debate between the hero and a churchman on the disassociation plan, a touching moment between the hero and his loving sister, and the party meeting at which his fate is decided, all the more engrossing because its outcome is not decided from the start.
On the other hand, while the fact that the play is far more interested in the man than in his mistress can be blamed on the sexism of the period, killing off one of the most vital and attractive characters a third of the way through does leave a dramatic hole.
Before she goes, the woman has a poorly imagined scene of desperation and hysteria. And although the dramatic climax of the play is unquestionably the party meeting and its decisions, the play lingers on for another forty-five minutes, slowly dissipating all the hold it had on the audience so that a second, offstage, climax barely registers.
Charles Edwards, by avoiding any star turns or flashiness, gives the hero a solid reality as a dedicated workaday bureaucrat that is very attractive, and Olivia Williams (except for that one weak scene) makes the woman so alive and sympathetic that her absence is sorely felt through the rest of the play.
There are strong moments from Gerrard McArthur as the churchman, Sylvestra Le Touzel as the hero's ever-supportive sister, Louis Hilyer as a no-nonsense politician and Paul Hickey as a wild-card outsider who could ruin everyone's plans.
Director Roger Michell deserves credit for helping make all the effective scenes work, and sympathy for not being able to conquer the text's obstacles, and Hildegard Bechtler's design, a matter of sliding panels and partly closing curtains to cover scene changes, is a little too pleased with its own cleverness.
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