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FringeReview UK 2019

Agnes Colander

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Drama, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Trevor Nunn, revived from the Ustinov Bath production of March 2018. Robert Jones’ design is suitably abridged for this Jermyn Street production. An unfussy realism attends the London atelier. The French version’s a touch more farmhouse, where Paul Pyant’s lighting suggests sour London northlight or rippling times of day in August near a French shoreline. Fergus O’Hare’s seascape sound design’s augmented with composer Steven Edis’ stitching accordion tunes with Fauré’s Nocturne No. 4.


A ruthless revival? It’s taken 120 years to find one less reason not to know Harley Granville Barker’s astonishing legacy – much of which is his fault.


Having bestridden the British theatre as actor, manager, director, and above all post-Ibsen playwright and advocate of a National Theatre, Barker retired mysteriously at thirty-eight, wrote his still-vital Prefaces To Shakespeare and died short of sixty-nine, in 1946. Like his best known play title has it, Waste.


Starring in Shaw premieres, Barker echoes him in tackling issues, though with less indulgent dialogue, and characterisation far more penetrating. Only one Edwardian playwright matches Barker: Githa Sowerby, whom Barker championed, now also revived, with plays rediscovered.


His first play Agnes Colander written in 1900 when he was in his twenty-third year (not actually twenty-three) is one of the most precocious and dangerous debut works by a British playwright: ever. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Kane’s Blasted were written when just a year older; neither risked the censor as Agnes Colander did.


Two censors in fact: Granville-Barker was hyper-critical, never submitted the work and pencilled in 1929 it was worth destroying. In 1932 he underlined that. Yet he kept it with him.


Barker must have hoped to revise it too. Its central theme, that of a woman married off at seventeen, made off at twenty-nine, is far more than the sum of the trio of men who want her. Sexually far more explicit than 1900 could dare – ‘the sex question’ is a repeated phrase – Agnes Colander turns on self-expression, not pleasure, though female desire’s there too.


It’s a layered, psychologically astute portrait of an artist who doubts her own worth, despite her painter friend Otho declaring back-handedly ‘There’s only three men in England with better colour than you’ when she doubts her capacity to design. Leaving her husband three years before the action, pursued by earthy Danish (Nordic again) Otho and pedestal-prone young Alexander, her choices don’t deflect from a life invoked despite and still, not through them. Each assertion’s countered by doubt, each doubt flurried through with some wild stab at living.


Robert Jones’ design is suitably abridged for Jermyn Street, but little is sacrificed save a central window. Two functioning doors upstage are separated by a seascape canvas of vast proportions. An unfussy realism attends the London atelier replete with easel stage right, and comfy chairs with a table and real viands served with stage beer or wine.


It showcases Otho’s relish of (here chicken) flesh, trumpeting offstage appetite. The French version’s a touch more farmhouse, where Paul Pyant’s lighting suggests sour London northlight or rippling times of day in August near a French shoreline. Fergus O’Hare’s seascape sound design’s augmented with composer Steven Edis’ stitching curious accordion tunes (more Paris, more 1920s really) with a truly sensitive insertion of Fauré’s Nocturne No. 4.


A National Theatre reading (whilst Waste was produced there in 2015, with actors from the company) was followed by a Bath premiere last March. Trevor Nunn’s revival transfers from Bath’s Ustinov for its first London run, featuring four of the original five-strong company. It benefits from sensitive editing from U. S. playwright Richard Nelson (he of hyper-naturalist The Apple Family Quartet and Gabriel Trilogy). This simply means trying to clarify illegible alterations to typescript and a bit of flow. What we get is Barker.


And we get a play that’s quite breathtaking. The enormous heft and inevitability of Waste seven years on, or even the slightly earlier The Voysey Inheritance of 1905, isn’t there yet. There’s a lot of Turgenev-like duetting too till towards the end. But the sheer intelligence – and relative economy – of the dialogue – carries us forwards.


If you think it’s wordy – and the action, eddying, emphasizes this a bit – look at unedited Shaw. Or even modern revivals. The Orange Tree’s 2017 one of his Misalliance (1909) had to cut swathes. For a leading actor who’d learned a lot of Shaw, Barker’s not trying to nail with wisecracks, but makes his characters witty. Of course there’s Shavian echoes: ‘Don’t you dare get ill or I’ll shake you’ declares Otho. There’s some uneasy lines too. Otho threatens to ‘spank’ Agnes. She merely reflects how ‘I’d love just to be a child again.’ Mmm.


From the start Naomi Frederick’s Agnes conceals something. First a painting we don’t see – revealed right at the end. Then a letter which Agnes reveals to Otho (Matthew Flynn’s rasp and man-child rage are consummately met) is from a husband Otho never suspected she had. Much of this duetting is merely interrupted by Cindy-Jane Armbruster’s maid Martha (she plays a French one, Suzon, latterly).


We’re introduced to Harry Lister Smith’s Alexander Flint, an earnest accountant-looking young man whose appearance considerably tousles in the few months he grows up between the first and second acts. Much of the action’s really the centrifuge of Agnes’ agon between returning to her husband, never an option, or falling in with Otho. There’s also the matter of a kiss she gave to Alex the previous night. He’s confused, and so’s she. It’s where Barker scores, creating self-delusion and conflict in his heroine, more self-aware than anyone else, save Otho on his own earthy ground.


It’s France and the two subsequent acts where the action builds, though the end of the second is curiously unclimactic, as if the interval was a pause. Having as he so often expresses it ‘possessed’ Agnes, Otho flirts with Sally Scott’s ex-pat Emmeline Majoribanks, thirty, widowed at twenty-two after just five years, and ravenously happy to kiss another’s husband; but when she finds out Agnes’ state, declares she’ll cut her in public. Scott scores a hidebound arc along cut glass, sexually open in her closet way, impossibly airy in her sentiments about the French (‘where there’s Englishwomen, there’s always tea’); deliciously easy to dislike.


Having seen Otho’s perceptiveness in the first act, riven with appetite, we’re treated to his boorish passions and jealousies, pained that Agnes has sexually withdrawn – it’s as explicit as that – and still seethingly jealous of poor Alex. And though Otho’s dalliance with Emmeline is passed off by them both to the scornful woman herself, it’s not her whom Agnes is concerned with. Otho’s reduced too, someone wholly absorbed in his art, who’ll scarcely miss anybody. There’s a shocking explosion, and as the emotional tide leaves a withdrawing roar, a surprise decision. Not what, but how.


If the splendid Otho seems faintly reduced by the end, there’s plenty of dialogue for him to express his perverse mix of deadly wisdom and child-like nonchalance and even lust. Flynn builds his rages and sunk sulks into someone who’s not quite a stereotypical artist, save in Barker’s final dismissal.


Lister Smith too ably transits from London clerk to (briefly) sexually experienced man-about-town, someone whose transformation is literally hairline – that tousling – but seismic. He’s a tad more than the typical Shaw brat. Armbruster’s French and shock registers a perfect cameo.


It’s Frederick of course, never offstage who must carry the play, its ‘attempt at life’ as the subtitle declares. It’s a superb part in the making. Frederick exudes a radiant self-knowledge – both intellectually and emotionally – to make you see what men pursue her for, and for wholly different ends. Equally she can express sudden twists of desire, an exquisite self-betrayal suddenly retracted, a playfulness born of desperate humour and nascent depression. Above all she expresses Agnes’ intelligence in light flickers of generosity, scorn, laughter, defiance and sudden desolation. Frederick’s voice etches an expressive range with bell-like clarity and inflection. At the end she conveys Agnes almost reflecting on Keats’ dictum: ‘that which is creative must create itself.’


Not a masterpiece, but a master in the making, and another play to make you lament Barker’s own doubts, and realize how at twenty-two he already knew how to express them.