Writer: St. John Greer Ervine
Director: David Gilmore
It is a wonder that it took seventy-five years for the revival of Jane Clegg. St. John Greer Ervine’s domestic drama, written and debuted in 1913, is Ibsen to its core. Yet, whilst Ibsen’s renowned A Doll’s House has seen countless adaptations, Jane Clegg was last put on in London back in 1944. The Finborough Theatre, acclaimed for their revivals, brought Ervine’s progressive work back to audiences in 2019, and it is now available to stream online.
The set, designed by Alex Marker with impeccable detail, is an authentic middle-class dining room. The space is unchanging throughout. It primarily airs comfort and respectability, but soon becomes stifling, even through a camera lens. Jane Clegg (Alix Dunmore), along with her two children and her mother-in-law (Maev Alexander), awaits the return of her unreliable and unfaithful husband. Traveling Salesman Henry (Brian Martin) it becomes clear, is not only a cheat, but a liar and embezzler – an “absolute rotter.” The walls close in on him as Mr Morrison (Sidney Livingstone), a senior at his company, and Mr Munce (Matthew Sim), a bookmaker, demand he repay their money.
Much of this play is cemented in 1913, but Ervine’s interrogation of money and power is timelessly relevant. The notion that female independence is intrinsically linked to economics is introduced immediately. Discussing Henry’s infidelities, Jane rationally states “Do you know why I didn’t leave…it was simply because I couldn’t.” With two children to care for and impossibly low wages, Jane would be unable to survive. The frustrated awareness of her situation makes perfect sense in the context of the suffragette movement. We are told though, that Jane’s uncle has left her a sum of seven-hundred pounds. Henry demands it is his, begging for even a cut, but she is determined it will go to her children’s futures. The power dynamics are upturned. As Henry claims, “Jane’s got all the money and she’s boss now.”
The cast manage the space expertly, cramming it with tension as Martin dashes around the stage attempting to lie his way through the chorus of angry yelling. He is unpredictable, childlike and rightly scoffed at by the vocal audience. The origins of his character are all too clear – his mother is devoted to his defence and Alexander portrays her irritating disposition well. Moral relief comes from Mr Morrison, played with strength by Livingstone, who shows the character’s humanity in his compassion for Jane.
There is no doubt the audience share Morrison’s empathy for Jane, but we never pity her – she won’t allow it. Dunmore’s portrayal of her constant respectability and strength is unwavering: as her mother-in-law scolds, “oh you take things too calm.” However, Jane’s fixed calmness creates a stagnancy of character. As with Henry and Mrs Clegg, Jane has little development. Unlike, say, Ibsen’s Nora. Jane is as patient yet stern with her children in the opening, as she is with Henry at the play’s climax. She learns what she already knows. Henry remains a weak scoundrel and his mother a tiresome traditionalist.
The text may be lacking, but the cast and direction (David Gilmore) are compelling. The archive footage is some of the best available outside of the National Theatre, with steady camera work and clarity of sound which is vital for a play driven by conversation. Overall, a satisfying watch but expect an unsurprising experience.
Runs here until 25 August 2020