Honour – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Joanna Murray-Smith

Director: Paul Robinson

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Honour, Australian writer Joanne Murray-Smith’s incisive study of a marriage break-up, has worn well. Its focus on gender roles perhaps comes through with greater clarity in 2018 than when it received its United Kingdom premiere at the National Theatre in 2003 and casual references in this version to blogs, bitcoins and Love Island, hardly seem needed to stress its modernity.

George (Henry Goodman) is an award-winning journalist, still admired and successful even if the decline of print media is threatening him. His wife, Honor (Imogen Stubbs) is also a talented writer, but none of her works has been published for 20 years. The play begins with them appearing to be the perfect middle-aged, middle-class couple, married for 32 years and with a daughter, Sophie (Natalie Simpson) studying at Cambridge.

The arrival of aspiring 29-year-old writer, Claudia (Katie Brayben) changes everything. She inspires George and re-awakens his passion for living, lifting him out of the tired sameness of his routine, conventional existence. He professes that he still loves Honor, but it is love without passion; he loves her as a wife, but, at this stage in his life, he feels that he does not need a wife. Honor’s life is shattered, as she is effectively traded in for a newer model

The play is about Honor and honour. Murray-Smith finds heaps of sympathy for the deserted wife, but, more to the point, she also blames her for choosing to sacrifice her own career in order to take second place behind her husband. If the writer cannot bring it upon herself to exonerate the seemingly dishonourable George, she at least helps us to understand his behaviour. When Claudia challenges him to explain why “the heart” takes precedence over tenderness, justice, loyalty and history, she asks the question which is central to the play.

Goodman’s George is an egotistical unacknowledged misogynist, a silver fox who is circling his prey and prepared to abandon his den for her. However, Brayben’s cleverly-nuanced performance makes Claudia an ambitious and uncannily self-aware modern woman, to the point of being callous, and she quickly overturns perceptions of who is hunter and who is prey. The abandoned Honor is a sad and isolated figure, but Stubbs gives her enough steel to reinforce the writer’s advocacy of female independence.

Paul Robinson’s intelligent, superbly-acted production is staged in-the-round, with a couple of rows of seating positioned at what is normally the rear of the Park 200’s stage. Liz Cooke’s design uses only an arc of overhead lights and several moveable blocks, but emotional performances more than compensate for its sterility. All the actors seem to know the extent to which their characters are ridiculous and this brings out the acerbic wit in Murray-Smith’s writing strongly. This revival shows Honour to be a very up-to-date 15-year-old play.

Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: Alex Brenner

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