‘Agnes Colander’ review
Time Out says
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Even heavyweight director Trevor Nunn can’t elevate this obscurity from twentieth-century titan Harley Granville-Barker
Not every old, un(der)performed play is a neglected masterpiece, even if it’s by one of the giants of early twentieth-century theatre. That’s definitely the case with Harley Granville-Barker’s ‘Agnes Colander’, which venerable director Trevor Nunn brings to Jermyn Street Theatre after the production’s debut last year at Theatre Royal Bath.
As a writer, Granville-Barker (who started out as an actor) tackled topics that other Edwardian playwrights would have balked at for fear of censorship. Thus, in this early play from 1900, the titular Agnes, a painter, has left her husband and is living with another man while still married.
Agnes has rejected being defined by an unhappy marriage, which has stifled her creatively and professionally and left her with no sense of identity. She’s then stuck between a man-child lover, painter Otto Kjoge, and a naive young guy, Alexander Flint, who can’t see her as an actual person.
Men being incapable of seeing women as anything other than things to be owned or halo-wearing angels – who’d have thunk it today, eh? In such broad brushstrokes, you can see why this play seemed apt for revival now. Granville-Barker also tackles sexual double standards and how much easier it is for Kjoge to step outside ‘conventional’ society than Agnes.
But, as progressive as this play is as a historical snapshot, it’s a stilted piece of writing with the hallmarks of an earnest, early work. It’s weighed down by long speeches and a dramatic inertia that Nunn fails to dispel with his painterly but pernickety direction. It can be almost painstaking, as characters take turns to pair up as talking heads.
The play also shows its age in Agnes’s final choice. It’s a reminder that, however much a writer pushes against the mores of their day, boundaries will always change.
Matthew Flynn’s bluster as Kjoge and Harry Lister Smith’s wide-eyed Englishness as Flint are fitfully entertaining, even if it’s not always clear that we should be laughing when we do. But it’s Naomi Frederick, as Agnes, who elevates a play that would otherwise be nothing more than a curio. She gives a fluid, complicated portrayal of a woman trying to work out who she wants to be.