Spirited revival of Bernard Shaw's grump, anti-feminist play
The title character of Bernard Shaw’s 1893 play must be one of the most unbearably slappable male leads in English theatre. Leonard Charteris (Rupert Young) is a smug proto-feminist who shamelessly manipulates two women and their respective fathers, in a comedy that’s brought to fizzing life by Orange Tree artistic director Paul Miller.
Miller has gone for a modern dress, in-the-round approach that keeps the one-liners crackling. But it feels like an odd frame for a play that’s set in a highly specific, and obscure moment in the battle of the sexes – the bit where ‘advanced’ men like Leonard would attempt to induce women to break Victorian codes of sexual morality simply by brandishing their copy of Ibsen's seizmic ‘A Doll’s House’. The slam of the door when Nora walks out on her husband and children reverberates all the way through this domestic drama, setting the tea china rattling.
Julia Craven (wittily played by Dorothea Myer-Bennett) spends most of the play in tears: she’s a romantic, ‘womanish woman’ who is desperate for marriage in an advanced social circle based in the imaginary Ibsen Club. There, women literally wear the trousers, and worship a gilded bust of Ibsen, complete with prodigious mutton chops. It’s a fascinating slice of history, but Shaw’s anti-feminist satire is blunted by the fact that chain-smoking women in suits haven’t been shocking for a good 70 years - although sadly, woman still ruffle feathers in men-only clubs today.
In classic theatre’s version of a choose-your-own-adventure book, Shaw’s play has two endings. Miller goes for the one with a scandalous divorce over the alternate happy marriage route – suiting Shaw’s own preference as a social critic and confirmed grumpy old man. Its moral feels no less sour a century on – but it’s hard not to feel that this unlikeable bunch have got the ending, if not the slap, that they deserve.