Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Phil Willmot
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Towards the end of his life, and frustrated with the slowness of social reform, Bernard Shaw called for a dictatorship to be established in Britain. A dictator, Shaw reasoned, would get things done, and rekindle the desire for Socialism. Although Heartbreak House, currently playing at the Union Theatre, was written in 1919, at least 10 years before his flirtation with despotism, we can see Shaw rallying against a society paralysed by selfishness and convention.
Heartbreak House is at the Union as part of the season Essential Classics devised by the Phil Willmot Company. Willmot has selected three plays or operas from the past which ‘reflect on issues similar to those we face today.’ The next production is Carmen while the season finishes with The Cherry Orchard. Shaw was a great admirer of Chekhov, and Heartbreak House is a conscious rewrite of the Russian playwright’s last play. Both plays focus on the demise of aristocratic families, and their refusal to adapt to the modern world with its industries and thriving middle-classes. By clinging on to stasis they only prepare for their extinction.
The passing of the aristocrats in Chekhov’s play is heralded by the unexplainable noise they hear in the garden and by the distant sound of the felling of trees. In Shaw’s play there’s a similar inexplicable noise, coming from across the English Channel. Does it signal the demise of the occupants of Heartbreak House?
The plot of the play seems quite at odds with the themes of degeneracy and dissolution. Hesione Hushabye has invited her friend Ellie to her family home in order that she can dissuade her from marrying the elderly factory magnate, Boss Mangan. Hesione’s task may be easier than she thought as Ellie has fallen in love with another man she met on the train, although problematically this man turns out to be Hesione’s husband Hector, who also has his eyes on his wife’s estranged sister Lady Ariadne Utterword. The first half of this production is farcical froth with darker matters being saved for after the interval.
Despite the play’s odd structure, it is often very funny, and the two sisters Hesione and Ariadne have the best lines. Francesca Burgoyne excels as the acid-tongued Ariadne, her eyes always lit up with malice while Helen Anker plays Bohemian Hesione with subtle brittleness. Mat Betteridge, all swagger and moustache, is equally good as Hector, but all the characters are written as cyphers and it’s difficult to care for any of them. Of course, this is Shaw’s point, but it does make for uncomfortable viewing. Overall, the play is a magpie’s nest, and as well as Chekhov there are allusions to Othello and King Lear and even The Importance of Being Earnest. Conversations on the futility of war, on women’s rights, and on new middle-class politicians, flash by, underexplored.
The set designed by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust is a faithful and pleasing representation of that demanded by Shaw in his stage directions. A room of the Hushabye’s house has been converted into the poop of a ship; at the top Hesione’s father Captain Shotover works on his inventions for ray guns. All around the wooden room are sticks of dynamite prefiguring the apocalypse that is to come. When asked what the dynamite is for, Shotover replies, ‘To blow up the human race!’
The play has also been cut in places and Willmot’s production lasts less than two hours even with an interval. While this slim-line version may be more palatable to 21st-century audiences there is a sense that we are missing something without the slow burn. Heartbreak House is a curious play, and while this is a solid production, it won’t quite shock its audiences out of political torpor.
Runs until 3 February 2018 | Image: Contributed