When last I reviewed Shaw's Heartbreak House, in Trevor Nunn's all-star Haymarket production of 1992, I remarked that the genteelly scabrous drawing-room humour of the first two acts seemed to do little to herald the apocalypse which followed. Christopher Morahan's Chichester production obviates this problem by simply downplaying the apocalypse.
And why not, indeed? I do not mean this sarcastically. Of course GBS was passionate in his raillery against the crass commercial values of the age then dawning, but no less so against the patrician buffoonery of the era in eclipse. Why should we consider ourselves obliged to feel the Zeppelin raid of the final act to speak any more deeply about our own social values than, say, the mysterious rumble and the sound of axes offstage during The Cherry Orchard? (The parallel is explicit; Heartbreak House is, after all, subtitled A Fantasia in the Russian manner on English Themes.) What are we expected to do – change the history of the twentieth century retrospectively? The age and the society of the play are no longer our own; consequently, there is no compulsion for either the staging or our responses to the play to pretend that they are.
All of which means that Morahan and his cast can concentrate on the comedy of manners, of chaarcter and of situation. Since the rumbling businessman Boss Mangan no longer needs to embody all the evils of heartless capitalism, Christopher Benjamin is free to make his pomposity almost endearing; since young, heartbroken Ellie Dunn is not called upon to personify the abandonment of youthful ideals in favour of hard-faced acquisitiveness, it is no matter that Susannah Wise retains a cool poise throughout. Joss Ackland's rummy, octogenarian matelot Captain Shotover; his daughters, Clare Higgins's wafting yet manipulative siren of a certain age Hesione and Anna Carteret's bleating snob Ariadne; and the men in the picture, Hesione's dashingly mendacious husband (Robert East) and Ariadne's middle-aged, whining puppy of a brother-in-law (Timothy Davies), can all be enjoyed on their own terms rather than as tools of Shavian social polemic.
On these terms, Morahan's production is a comfortable success. Of course we might yearn for a production that does more; but then, we can always yearn for a production of Shaw that covers all the bases he seemed to intend. One suspects that people always have so yearned, and that it is more or less impossible to do what GBS would have considered full dramatic and thematic justice to virtually any of his works. So, then, why not just enjoy what has been achieved with it here?
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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