A touch of class

That most Bri­tish of pre­oc­cu­pa­tions is cur­rently grip­ping London’s the­atres, dis­cov­ers Michael Billing­ton

Country Life Every Week - - Theatre -

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

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