THE SKIN GAME
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 23 March, 2007
John Galsworthy's 1920 drama sees a family of the old-fashioned
squirearchy tussling with the commercial nouveaux-riches over the future of
a corner of rural England. Land is bought to be exploited, with
long-standing tenants losing their homes and even with malice
aforethought, as industrial potter Hornblower plans to encircle the
home of Squire Hillcrist with works simply in order to drive the
"snobs" out. On learning that Hornblower's daughter-in-law has a past
as a professional divorce co-respondent, the Hillcrists turn to
blackmail to save themselves, regardless of its human and moral cost.
It becomes a bare-knuckle fight, hence the period-colloquial title.
There is a suggestion that Galsworthy was really writing about the
First World War through the parable of a Loamshire saga; once or twice,
there is also a hint of the Irish War of Independence which was being
conducted as he wrote it. Time and again, though, I found myself
remembering a truism dunned into me for history A-Level: that one of
the principal causes of WW1 was simply that, after a certain point, it
became too much trouble not
to go to war. This seems to be the case equally with Clive Francis's
blustering Hornblower, a self-made man who didn't spend too long on the
polishing, and Lynn Farleigh's sanctimonious, ramrod-backed Mrs
Hillcrist, who is prepared to go far further than her husband (Geoffrey
Beevers) in defending their way of life even at the expense of its
ethical basis. Neither side can be bothered to make the effort to talk.
Even the initially idealistic younger generation find common ground
whipped from under them, and drift into their families' polarisation.
One way or another, benevolent paternalism is seen to have had its day.
The irony is that, from nearly a century's distance, we know that what
succeeded it has been the commercial imperative which Galsworthy
portrays as almost pantomimic in its villainy.
The balance of our sympathy and expectation may have shifted since its
composition, but the fundamental ambivalence continues to chime with us
in Sam Walters' characteristically adroit in-the-round production. In
particular, the second-act land auction, skilfully presided over by
Graham Seed, makes full use of the Orange Tree's layout with audience
and actors only a few feet away on all four sides.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights
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