A touch of class
That most British of preoccupations is currently gripping London’s theatres, discovers Michael Billington
What is it that drives the plot of most plays? I suspect many of us would say ‘Power, money, sex’ or perhaps a combination of all three, but there is another ingredient we rarely acknowledge, which is strange, as it’s an abiding British preoccupation: class. It so happens that, in the space of 36 hours, I recently saw two plays in which it was the dominant factor and a third of which it was a vital part.
I’ve often pointed out that we now look to London’s smaller theatres for regular revivals of the classics. A case in point is the excellent production of Marivaux’s The Lottery of Love at the Orange tree in Richmond. this is actually an adaptation by John Fowles of a 1730 French play that Sir Peter hall commissioned for the National theatre in 1984, but which, for whatever reason, never got done at the time.
that’s a pity as Fowles kept Marivaux’s plot, but shifted the action to Regency England. there is a distinct whiff of Jane Austen, which is appropriate as she was a precise observer of the minute gradations of social class and that is very much the theme of Marivaux’s delicate, but complex, comedy.
I’ll try to keep it simple, but the point is roughly this. the high-born Sylvia is about to be confronted by a potential husband. to test him out, she decides to swap places with her maid. What she doesn’t know is that her suitor, Richard, has had exactly the same idea and switched with his servant. this opens up all kinds of comic possibilities.
Sylvia is bewitched, bothered and bewildered at finding herself falling in love with a supposed inferior. Richard, meanwhile, has to decide whether to leap over the barriers of class and marry a presumed housemaid by whom he is hopelessly smitten.
Like all great plays, Marivaux’s is open to several possible meanings. You could say that it’s a deeply conservative play that demonstrates the instinctive sympathy of the wellbred. Looked at from another angle, however, it seems a wildly radical play for its pre-revolutionary period. Marivaux not only shows that the servants— and this is 50 years before The Marriage of Figaro—have a wit and pragmatism denied their employers, he allows Sylvia’s maid, who believes herself to be falling for her mistress’s intended, to cheekily proclaim her triumph.
What I shall remember from Paul Miller’s production is Dorothea Myer-bennett’s delicious confusion as Sylvia. She starts out with something of the selfdeceiving priggishness of Austen’s Emma Woodhouse and goes on to display the blushing embarrassment of a woman helplessly intoxicated by a man she believes belongs below stairs.
If class spins the plot in The Lottery of Love, it actually forms the title of t. W. Robertson’s Caste, which was first performed in 1867. Now, exactly 150 years later, it’s getting a rare, and very good, revival at the Finborough in Earl’s Court, a theatre that offers infinite riches in a little room. Like Marivaux, Robertson deals with the amorous complications of class, but there’s a big difference between the two writers. Marivaux looks reactionary, but turns out to be surprisingly radical: Robertson, on the other hand, seems subversive, but, in the end, becomes sentimental. Perhaps that’s simply a reflection of Victorian taste.
the situation in Caste can be simply stated. George D’alroy, an aristo of Norman stock, falls for, and secretly marries, Esther Eccles, a dancer from down Lambeth way. the fun starts when their marriage is revealed and their parents collide. George’s mother, the Marquise de St Maur, is a whaleboned snob who is forever quoting Froissart’s Chronicles; Esther’s father is a wily toper whom Shaw, who admired Robertson’s play, must have had in mind when creating Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion.
Robertson’s work is lively and funny, but what is striking is its determination to question the rigidity of the class system without overturning it. Robertson is fond of quoting tennyson’s line that ‘Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood’. At one point, a character also says ‘Nobody’s nobody, Everybody’s somebody’,
but that’s about as dangerous as it gets.
Having exposed the apparently insuperable barriers of class, Robertson then ignores them by bringing everyone together in mutual reconciliation. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I still had a good time.
Paul Bradley is a delight as Eccles, who is drawn with Dickensian vigour and who threatens to steal a precious ornament off his sleeping grandson to finance his boozing. Rebecca Collingwood as Esther’s pert sister also fills the stage with vivacity, showing that charm is not a class prerogative.
Even when class is not the prime subject of a play, it has a habit of putting in an appearance—especially in English drama. On the same day I saw Caste at the Finborough, I attended Nina Raine’s Consent at the National’s Dorfman Theatre. This is a fascinating, multi-layered play about a group of middle-class barristers who find their comfortable, blandly opulent lives blown apart by domestic angst, but at the heart of the story is a rape case in which two of them are locked in professional opposition.
The complainant in the case is a working-class woman, Gayle, whose record of depression is used against her in court, but the fact that the alleged rapist has a history of sexual violence remains undisclosed.
This is not so much an issue play as a study in human rela- tionships. In particular, Miss Raine shows what happens when a marriage goes to pieces: Ben Chaplin as an empathy-free barrister and Anna Maxwell Martin as his wife are heartrending in Roger Michell’s production as they resort to law and engage in bitter custody battles.
But it is Heather Craney’s Gayle who is the pivot of the action. At one point, she invades the Champagne-swilling Christmas revels of the barristers and their wives, seething with the injustice done to her in court, not just because she’s a woman, but seemingly because she comes from the wrong background.
You could compile a long list of British dramatists obsessed by class. In The Changing Room and The Contractor, the late David Storey explored the gulf between workers and management. Alan Ayckbourn, once dubbed ‘the Molière of the middle-classes’, shows, in Absurd
Person Singular, the socially inferior Sidney Hopcroft making his professional mentors dance to his tune. Alan Bennett has persistently charted the complexities of an England in which education severs people from their origins.
Whatever our personal views on the continuation of the class system, one fact is clear: from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives
of Windsor and Strindberg’s Miss Julie up to the present day, it always makes for engrossing drama.
Happy couple: Ashley Zhangazha and Dorothea Myer-bennett fall in love in The Lottery of Love
Unhappy couple: Consent’s Ben Chaplin and Anna Maxwell Martin