Royal National Theatre (Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 27 February, 2003

Joanna Murray-Smith is one of Australia's most fêted playwrights, but her piece Honour is one of the purest examples of the "adultery in NW3" genre. The essential trio of characters is augmented only by a daughter; all scenes are duologues between various permutations of the four; there is, in Roger Michell's Cottesloe production, no action on stage whatever, apart from a single kiss at the almost exact mid-point of the 100-minute continuous performance. The rest is mere arrangement of bodies on William Dudley's Japanese-minimalist set, a matter of where and how they are positioned to do the talking which is the not just the meat but the entire physique of the play.

Once or twice the script hits an obvious note: when, early on, we hear writer and journalist George and his wife Honor, a poet who put her career on hold for their thirty-plus years together, incredulously discussing a friend who has walked away from a secure, long-lasting marriage into an affair with a woman half his age, we know not just that George will do the same but that he will sound exactly the same notes about adventure, rejuvenation and the like. But it is only once or twice. Murray-Smith assiduously and intelligently probes the central question of whether or not it is true that "history kills passion", and which is more important to love: loyalty and shared experience or the invigoration of that flame, abrogating oneself to the relationship as Honor has done or affirming one's individuality at whatever cost to that relationship like George. The writer's sympathies are clear, but she does not stack the cards of the dramatic argument in her own favour.

The combination of intellectual complexity and emotional and verbal directness has much in common with poetry, and Eileen Atkins' performance as Honor has that same poetic force: not highflown, but wondrously true in every atom. I could praise Atkins to the skies, and she would deserve it, but it would somehow misrepresent her particular glory, which is to get straight to the heart of every feeling and every word without over-inflecting for an instant. The scene in which George makes his awkward announcement to Honor is a microcosm of Atkins' gift: the simple lines, "You're leaving me? Say it again... Did you say you were leaving me?", the bare delivery, the banality of a middle-aged woman standing there limply with a potato and a peeler in her hands, and yet the communication of the seismic force within it all.

In some ways it is a pity that Corin Redgrave is opposite Atkins: his discreetly masterly technical precision can never quite match her, although in any other context it would be his own performance as George receiving such garlands, as the most comprehensively excellent work I have seen from him in several years. And next to this pairing, the other two roles are still more invidious. As Claudia, the self-assured young interviewer who flatters George into an infatuation, Catherine McCormack goes for brittle and sparky; it works as a temperament, but sometimes sells short aspects of the character by making them seem too flimsy and specious, as when Claudia tries to persuade everyone including herself that she is paradoxically saving Honor by setting her free to rediscover her own life. Anna Maxwell Martin has little choice but to play the few narrow notes of daughter Sophie's anger.

The play takes the most sterile tract of dramatic land and revivifies it, and Atkins makes one almost weep, at once in anguish for the character and for joy at her own performance.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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