Fiona Shaw is an actor of great range and power, underpinned by a lively sense of humour and a sometimes fearsome intellectual acuity. All of which makes it rather puzzling that her strategy in her directorial debut, the Royal National Theatre's touring production of George Bernard Shaw's first play Widowers' Houses, should apparently consist of little more than turning all the emotions up to fever pitch.
Shaw (G.B.)'s critique – both directly of slum-landlordism and compulsory-purchase compensation scams, and indirectly of a society whose mores are but a thin veneer over such squalid enormities – is impassioned and clever: not particularly subtle, but hardly straight polemic either. In some ways, the complacency of landlord Sartorius and the moral dilemma of his prospective son-in-law Dr Harry Trench are more chilling when played urbanely. But Shaw (F.) eschews such possibilities; having allowed her actors during rehearsal to explore the piece and find their own levels, she would seem to have neglected to consider the possibility of reining them in a bit. I gather that during rehearsals of one scene, a couple of the actors pulled up floorboards from Peter McKintosh's harsh, shabby set and were on the point of setting about one another with them; this would not have been out of place in this production, but one suspects it is not what the author imagined. Nor, probably, are the whimpering prostrations of Trench when asking Sartorius for his daughter's hand, or the daughter in question falling later into such a fit of fury that a wooden spoon is rammed into her mouth for her to gnaw on, let alone the reappearance of Sartorius's former minion and rent-collecting heavy, Lickcheese, as being now so prosperous that he wears a black evening frock and sparkling necklace.
The events – effectively a duel of immorality between Pip Donaghy's Sir Jasperishly villainous Sartorius and Jonathan Slinger's vacillating Trench, who ultimately crawls inside a hip-flask for escape – are played on loose planking above a bed of pebbles, in front of a filthy, half-shattered glasshouse (just to emphasise the dominant metaphor), in light which grows steadily more febrile and apocalyptic, and with occasional rumbles over the speakers which sound like the avalanches of tumbling moral certainties. Fiona Shaw's interpretation lays bare how hollow and fractured the social conventions are which are tested by such conduct as rack-renting. However, in eliminating from the stage even any perfunctory observance of the codes of "normal", "polite" society, she throws the baby out with the bathwater. How can we be disgusted with the hypocrisy of such corruption unless we are also shown the proprieties being flouted? The visual and emotional tone of the production mean that it sets up its own world, but it only sets up half of it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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