Oxford Playhouse/touring
Opened 8 June, 1995

In contrast to Martin Scorsese's unaccustomed delicacy of touch in filming Edith Wharton's The Age Of Innocence, director Annie Castledine and adaptor Dawn Keeler have made of the same writer's The House Of Mirth an unappealing slab of turn-of-the-century bourgeois vacuity.

Lily Bart (Jane Maud), living beyond her means among the idle middle classes and unable (once her situation becomes known) to secure a marriage either for love or money, might charitably be viewed as a distant relation of Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. However, in comparison with these heroines Lily's passions are very diluted.

The piece is intended as social comment as much as drama, but Castledine and Keeler struggle vainly to imbue their characters with even the vague substance required to make an audience care for a moment about their complacency and hypocrisy. As often as not, characters deliver even dialogue straight out to the audience, which ably conveys the impression of simply going through the motions of personal interaction, but deprives them of even basic pretence of social connection. This distancing is exacerbated by placing actors at differing levels on Iona McLeish's set of iron steps and tubular steel gantries and arcs.

Maud is in control of matters through the first act, in which Lily is fêted and courted by a number of well-heeled acquaintances (most notably Ann Firbank as Judy Trenor, the den mother failing to suppress an unbecoming impulse to gossip). Yet Lily does not establish herself powerfully enough as an individual to carry off the complete reversal of fortunes which takes place after the interval. Bourgeois tragedy has always been a problematic concept, and is one which this production fails to resolve.

When watching theatre, I sometimes feel like the little girl watching the state opening of Parliament, who, on seeing the Lord Chamberlain in all his finery, asked: "Daddy, what's that man for?" Answer, in the case of The House Of Mirth, came there none. Cambridge Theatre Company is in the throes of renaming itself Method and Madness; this production lacks either.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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