Theatre Review: ‘Widowers’ Houses’

Utterly perverse

‘Widowers’ Houses’. (National Theatre Company. Touring)

My affection for the theatre is such that I rarely feel moved to talk out, and on those occasions when the thought crosses my mind I invariably quickly conclude that things can only get better. Not unusually my optimism is rewarded, and they do. But a couple of weeks ago I achieved a first. Not only did I want to talk out, but I wanted to do so whilst shouting abuse at the director. Indeed had I been on my own I think I might have done so.

The occasion for this singular experience was a National Theatre production of Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses, directed by Fiona Shaw, which is currently on a UK tour. Widowers’ Houses, Shaw’s amazing first play, was first produced in 1892. Written as a black comedy of manners, the play demonstrates how, given the imperatives of capitalism, landlords must necessarily exploit their poor and needy tenants, and that all those who are involved in the system are inevitably tainted as a result.

Fiona Shaw is a marvellous actress, whose performances have given me much pleasure. She is also a sparky, intelligent woman with, so I understand, an Honours degree in philosophy. But her directorial debut sees her perfidiously misinterpreting Shaw’s masterpiece. The play as written is a biting, ironic attack of the unpleasant facts of live in Victorian England. But the play as performed is stripped of its historical, economic and political reference points, and infused with an arbitrary erotic sexuality and unlikely melodrama, to the point where it becomes meaningless. “Did you understand that?” said the man next to me to his partner at the end of the show. “No,” said his partner without qualification. And it was easy to sympathise.

Director’s often reinterpret great pieces of drama, sometimes to telling effect. Shakespeare is a frequent target and the result can occasionally be thrilling. I recall a recent performance of Richard III in which the king was a Hitler-like dictator living in 20th century Europe. And film buffs will likely be familiar with Paul Douglas’s account of Macbeth, with the central part being played by a gangster, Joe Macbeth, living in 1920s’ Chicago. But Ms Shaw hasn’t so much reinterpreted her namesake’s play as perversely misread it. On this occasion she might properly be called Fiona Unshaw.

The words spoken by the actors often don’t match their actions. Early on Harry Trench, a young doctor with aristocratic connections who is enjoying a Rhineland tour with his older travelling companion Cokane, meets Blanche Sartorious, the wealthy daughter of a rich slum landlord. This is familiar territory, and the resonances with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which had been performed for the first time only few years earlier, are very clear. Trench hasn’t been formally introduced to Blanche and the conventions must be observed. As the redoubtable Blanche tries to have to find a way of prompting the dithering Harry to speak to her father so that she can acknowledge that she has already spoken briefly to him, Shaw describes Harry as “stammering” and “looking at her piteously”. But in this production he doesn’t stammer or look piteous. Rather he drags Blanche behind an awning where the audience see them immediately begin to copulate.

This deliberate undermining of Shaw’s intentions would be bad enough, were it not that matters immediately get worse. The highly-charged sexual encounter has been seen by Blanche’s father. His reaction in real life can only be imagined, but Shaw has given him words which meet his intentions, and not the behaviour which Ms Unshaw has conceived. The Shaw line reads, “Sartorious (gravely): ‘I intended you to accompany us’ (on our walk), Blanche.” You can imagine the audience’s wide-eyed disbelief. Many people laughed uproariously at the sheer absurdity of it all. Rarely have I felt more sympathy for an actor having to speak such a foolishly inappropriate line.

Further liberties are taken. Speeches are jettisoned, the author’s stage directions wilfully ignored or countermanded, Blanche becomes pregnant, and Sartorious’s rent collector appears in drag.

How the National Theatre can allow such a travesty to tour is beyond me. It is an unworthy, tawdry show. Better to spend part of the entrance fee on a copy of the play, and re-read Shaw’s biting attack on the inhumanities and injustices that are forever part and parcel of capitalism. Whereas I read the play with increasing pleasure, Ms Unshaw’s production had my blood boiling with barely suppressed rage.


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