FringeReview UK 2017
Paul Miller’s returned the Orange Tree to direct a third Shaw rarity. Laura Hopkins’ decantered drawing-room is evocative, evoking a conservatory, in David Plater’s sunny afternoon lighting. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music exudes the right breeziness. Till January 20th.
Paul Miller’s returned to the Orange Tree to direct a third Shaw rarity. Shaw’s 1910 extraordinary Misalliance is rarely-revived for a lame reason: it starts as fizzing drawing-room verbosity and comes to rest only after an aircraft’s crashed in on it, with two aviators – one a feminist acrobat – and a gun-toting clerk popping out of the home’s Turkish bath to start off class reckoning with a bang. Think Man and Superman for the former (including far-fetched farce) and inevitably the later Heartbreak House with its premonitions and Zeppelin raid explosions. It’s a play of halves. Stay with the first, the latter’s Faydeau-esque brio will stay with you.
What unifies Misalliance however is feminist assertion flexing muscles quite literally as Polish acrobat Lina Szczepanowska hauls off luckless family members to the gym, subjecting everyone to a cerebrally scornful work-out. As do all the women in this triumph of matter over manner, sexual freedom over repression masquerading as sentiment. There’s slaps too for patriarchy’s creepy dream of youth.
Laura Hopkins’ decantered drawing-room with carpets extending to walkways is evocative, unfussy and topped off with that Turkish bath and a vast sprig of foliage dangling from the reflective ceiling, evoking the defenestrated conservatory, in David Plater’s sunny afternoon lighting. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s memorable score swoons cheerfully out of period, more Eric Coates than Edward German, exuding the right breeziness. The swooping aeroplane sound’s a bit late too: more Tiger Moth than Bleriot or Farman. But who’s counting the pistons?
The title’s teasing: one engagement certainly, but there’s a patriarchal dream that needs lancing: of mainly older and certainly hidebound men for liberated younger women. Pip Donaghy’s Mr Tarleton may be a cut from Major Barbara’s Undershaft, manufacturing underwear not arms, but he’s an intellectually enquiring man who enthuses Whitman to Szczepanowska and cites Dickens’ letters to guest Lord Summerhays as evidence of monstrous neglect of family. He presides over his genially, but presiding of any sort is what his daughter Hypatia’s kicking against, and his wife subverts.
Donaghy relishes Tarleton’s relish for debate and here not getting his way. He’s fiendishly good fondling that benign front – giving darkness to Tarleton‘s own hypocritical lusts, all down to his superman complex, a ‘superabundant vitality’ masking his youthful spirit apparently. He’s on a mission creep. The old men end badly: that is what Shaw’s play means.
Whilst his philistine son Johnny (splendidly bullish Tom Hanson, darkening to bully) spouts stricter patriarchy than ever his father does, it’s Marli Siu’s superbly watchful, flirty but ultimately liberated Hypatia whose assertions light up the earlier badinage of the play. She tells her father she wants to be ‘an active verb’ and she’s at least sexually pro-active. Siu’s attentiveness to every flicker around her is like witnessing someone mark down Hypatia’s future rather than just prey.
Simon Shepherd’s urbane Lord Summerhays has arrived to witness his puling youngest son’s engagement to Hypatia. Hypatia’s chosen Rhys Isaac-Jones’ childish Bentley as the only intellect in a crop of Johnnys as it were. The elfin Isaac-Jones is horribly good as the weak but splenetically wise late child: paradoxically his movements are the most balletic of all, jerky and discombobulated, riding for a clip round his spoilt little ego. Several times he falls to the floor screaming till he gets his way (Shaw’s direction). Saint Joan’s Dauphin seems Nestor beside him.
His mildly despairing widower father though is being mildly blackmailed by Hypatia for declaring his own love. Her twitting here is pure Ann Whitefield from Man and Superman – and for a reason. Shaw recognizes sexual power is one of the few levers to independence in 1910 Britain. Rightly he sees it as distortive.
All’s altered by broken glass as that aeroplane crashes just before the interval, the passenger saving the day with off-stage contortions. The pilot’s turns out to be the confident if hidebound friend of Bentley: Joey Percival. Like Thallon makes of him an affable plaything for Hypatia’s panther-like sports. Still, his aimiability’s riven by prejudice against an interloper, with a venality only mitigated by brutal honesty. It masks his genuine lightning return of desire to Hypatia’s healthy lust.
Unveiling her gender amidst scarf swathes, Lara Rossi’s Szczepanowska lances every male assumption whilst dazzling them to helpless adoration with a gimlet look, calling for six oranges and a bible. Keeping her juggling and spirit in trim precludes any desire to adore anyone back. Rossi relishes wrestling verbally or physically when it becomes necessary to disarm a young man: that moment you expect.
More interesting is what she disposes not for herself but others, and Rossi’s poised analysis, yet again of hidebound custom bounces from a trapeze angle. Without giving spoilers one had already accosted her abroad, indeed nearly all make honest passes as she judges: but it’s someone else who offends her. Rossi’s scornfully light drollery enjoys a voltage of poise and summary dispatch that thrills as it skirts farce. And for one character at least, there’s a curious proposition from Szczepanowska, parallel to a famous Shaw moment alluded to above.
As Szczepanowska asserts: ‘I am strong: I am skilful: I am brave: I am independent: I am un-bought: I am all that a woman ought to be.’ Shaw couldn’t have an Englishwoman say that convincingly, not even Anne Whitefield.
The young man we know only as JB presents a farce too far on first inspection. It’s as if Shaw knew he’d ended the first half spectacularly, so where to go? Jordan Mifsud injects as much urgency and sheer terror as he can: JB’s own. It’s an inchoate part. JB’s target is Tarleton’s bad usage but this isn’t what you’d expect and Shaw uses him as a cipher.
So this rude awakener of class conscience full of ‘Rome fell, Babylon fell, Hindhead’s turn will come’ might be take at farce value were it not for Shaw’s bad dreams. But what JB manages after much disarming and bullying is to arouse Mrs Tarleton’s sympathies through an unexpected connection. Shaw’s realized that Mrs Tarleton needs not simply dramatic inclusion – she’s consciously a housewife, not helpmeet – but in Shaw’s feminist schema women should leave the men standing. Hence JB’s appearance. Gabrielle Lloyd gives a clear-headed Mrs Tarleton, not prone to fantasy but far more pragmatic than her spouse.
Notwithstanding its lovingly detailed longeurs Misalliance is often vintage Shaw, half English drawing-room, half French farce. Shaving Shavian dialogue isn’t that easy, but examining the verbose text it’s tantalising to see where the few cuts are made (for instance reference to a servant and mutual reflections on ageing and reverting to accent by Mrs Tarleton to Summerhays). At little short of three hours there’s still times in the first half when energy and line drop in the play itself, never the performers. They’re an indefatigable ensemble. This revival simply couldn’t be bettered.
The Orange Tree’s more than the Donmar of west London; quite how the Arts Council squares its caprice in playing with project funding after it pulled Portfolio status marks an index of its own confusions, a periodical desire to rough things up by withdrawing from great theatres. The Orange Tree transfers (to Soho) of newly-commissioned work and many young person schemes are just two more reasons why its extinction would be a further cultural disaster.