Last year marked my first visit to Richmond's intimate Orange Tree Theatre and that was to see a rare production of George Bernard Shaw's social comedy WIDOWERS' HOUSES, directed by the Orange Tree's artistic director Paul Miller. I enjoyed it much more than I expected so was very curious to see if lightning would strike twice with Miller tackling another early Shaw comedy THE PHILANDERER. Ouch! It did.
The poster's photograph looks like the kind of hipster bloke you would see in Hoxton Square and the production is played in modern dress which actually works, Shaw's battle between women and a slippery man is always current!
Written in 1893, Shaw's stance on women having an active say in their lives and loves was so free-thinking that it didn't get a proper theatrical production until 1907 at the always courageous (Royal) Court theatre. It had however already been published in 1898 in the collection "Plays Unpleasant" with WIDOWERS' HOUSES and MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION and there was a private performance staged in 1905. Shaw dropped the last act of his play when it was suggested to him that
discussing divorce onstage was beyond the pale but Miller has reinstated
it to give us Shaw's real intention.
Our philanderer of the title is Leonard Charteris, a man incapable of fidelity who confesses to his new lover, an elegant widow called Grace, that he never did break off his previous affair with the fiery Julia. When Julia arrives unannounced all Hell breaks loose as she demands that Leonard stays with her but while she pleads with him, Charteris chides her that her actions are counterpoint to her much-trumpeted idea of being a 'new woman'. Just to complicate matters further Grace and Julia's fathers both appear and are totally confused by the morals of the day.
The arguments spill over to the fashionable Ibsen Club where you are only allowed membership if you are a non-manly man or non-womanly woman in keeping with the great writer's thoughts but needless to say this is all just a pose for most of them. Also there is Dr Paramore who confesses to Julia's father that he is not in fact dying because the good doctor misdiagnosed him. If only he could experiment on a bigger range of animals, then he could have made a proper diagnosis! One thing he is sure of is that he adores the tempestuous Julia and she actually accepts the doctor's marriage proposal to spite Leonard - not realizing that he arranged it all.
Shaw's last act takes place four years later and - surprise surprise - both Julia and Paramore are both thoroughly bored with each other and Paramore has started a relationship with - what a surprise - the widow Grace. To divorce or not divorce? How does Julia feel about Grace being a rival again? And more importantly, can Leonard stay teflon-coated when women are concerned?
Paul Miller's production crackled with Shaw's wit and was a joy to experience, I think I enjoy early Shaw the best, before he became a bit of a pompous old windbag. It was interesting that THE PHILANDERER comes relatively soon after seeing his MAN AND SUPERMAN where another man tries to escape from the marauding chasing woman but THE PHILANDERER makes it's point with a great deal more economy.
Miller's cast of eight were all impressive at keeping Shaw's emotional souffle whipped up. Rupert Young could have been a bit more dangerous as the philanderer Leonard but was nicely laid-back and wisely stayed out of the way of the deliciously explosive Julia of Dorothea Myer-Bennett who was so effective as Nerissa in MERCHANT OF VENICE at the Globe Theatre last year. Here she caught the quicksilver quality of Julia, desperately trying to be a cynical, modern woman but betrayed by her emotions.
I liked the wry coolness of Helen Bradbury's Grace, the wheedling neediness of Christopher Staines' Dr. Paramore and the double act of exasperated fathers from Mark Tandy's Cuthbertson and Michael Lumsden's Colonel Craven, both clinging on to a vanishing world. There was also a saucy, eye-catching performance from Paksie Vernon as Julia's cynical younger sister Sylvia.
THE PHILANDERER is on until the 26th June and is well worth a visit to the wilds of Richmond.