Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Paul Miller
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The full title of Bernard Shaw’s 1909 comedy is Misalliance: A Debate in One Sitting, but the Orange Tree has wisely chosen to omit the subtitle of its latest production of lesser-known works by the Irish playwright. There is debate here, but this is a more light-hearted Shaw than we are used to, and his comedy is so broad at times that it’s often farcical.
Effete (‘overbred like one of those little dogs’) and aristocratic Bunny is staying at his fiancé’s family home so that his bride-to-be can get to know him better. He’s marrying beneath him, as Hypatia is the daughter of Johnny Tarleton, a new member of the burgeoning middle-class, who made his money in underwear. Hypatia doesn’t love Bunny, but sees the marriage as an escape from her dull life. She craves to be an active verb as an ‘active verb signifies to be, to do, or to suffer.’
Like most of Shaw’s works, this is a play about ideas, and indeed at one point becomes a play about a play of ideas when the characters debate the uses of literature. Perhaps there is too much talk in the first act; even Hypatia calls it ‘infernal cackle’ and she is desperate for something to happen and so it’s good news for her, and for the audience, when an aeroplane comes crashing out of the sky to put an end to all the talking. When the two survivors enter the house, this drawing-room comedy becomes less predictable, and this anarchic direction is maintained in the second half.
Misalliance is a state-of-the-nation play, with Shaw throwing in as many issues that Edwardian society faced as he could; we have examinations of the gulf of understanding between parents and children, of the fear of those who breach traditional gender roles, of class conflict, of feminism, and the rise of socialism. There’s so much going on, thankfully very funny, that it’s easy to forget the marriage plot which holds the play together.
Paul Miller, the Orange Tree’s artistic director, and director of Shaw’s The Philanderer in 2016, and Widowers’ Houses in 2014, is not afraid to highlight Shaw’s humour and his cast have perfect comic timing. Marli Siu gives Hypatia some thoroughly modern spirit, confident and brash, and Lara Rossi excels as the proud Polish acrobat Lena, who has to shake off the sexual advances of most of the men. Rossi plays Lena as if she has dropped out of the future as well as the sky; unlike Hypatia, she doesn’t need a man to escape. Rhys Isaac-Jones is very funny as Bunny, but perhaps, ultimately there is too much arch affectation, too much camp, for him to be nothing more than a cypher of degeneracy, a fear that had plagued fin de siècle Europe. However, in the stage directions, Shaw suggests that Bunny is meant to be a ‘little exasperating’.
The set, designed by Laura Hopkins, is simple, as it needs to be when all nine actors are on stage, with just a few pieces of furniture on top of a smart carpet, representing the respectability of middle-class life. Miller ensures that sight lines for the audience are never compromised, always tricky at the Orange Tree, a theatre in the round, although perhaps some audience members aren’t quite able to see the fun Shaw has with a portable Turkish bath.
If Shaw was alive now, and was commissioned to write a state-of-the-nation play about 2017, the result would be very similar to Misalliance. Older men still think that they can buy younger women with money, people are still afraid of those who challenge gender roles, and society is still riven by class. Nothing much has changed, except today doesn’t seem as funny as this rarely performed play.
Runs until 20 June 2018 | Image: Contributed