Review: Agnes Colander

IN BRIEF 100 year-old play detailing an Edwardian woman’s search for an authentic life is impeccably cast and acted but the material is too slight and static to sustain on stage.

Seeing a show about a woman’s struggle to find herself in a male-dominated world seemed a good choice of viewing to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th. This previously unproduced early play by the much-lauded Edwardian playwright Harley Granville Barker is lovingly brought to the stage by Trevor Nunn, whose work is always worth seeing. Complimented by a simple yet effective stage design, minimal but elegant lighting effects and pinpoint accuracy in the costume department, it was obvious that this was a labour of love by the creative team.

Playing at the 70-seat Jermyn Street Theatre, this 90-minute play (excluding interval) played to an appreciative, quiet audience.

Agnes, having left her overbearing husband, works at painting by the sea. Agnes is visited by Otto, a fellow painter who has emotional feelings for her, and later by a representative of her husband who wishes her to return to him. This character is also besotted with Agnes, representing the accepted norms of society as a constant reminder of what society then expected of women. Agnes rebels, moving to France with Otto, where she discovers an uneasy companionship with a fellow English lady, a widow, whose presence creates tensions that eventually lead Agnes to evaluate her situation and start a new chapter in her quest for an independent life on her own terms.

The play reflects both extremities of the social panorama of the time, polite society and the unconventional world of the artist; Agnes is at home with neither. Her conflicted state is also underscored by the fact that neither we or her fellow characters see any of her work, until the end, which in itself finally feels like a small but significant breakthrough for the character.

The play itself feels rather like a draft, not a finished piece. It is so static and lengthily, heavily discursive that it could almost have been played on radio and lost practically nothing in the telling. However, the cast were uniformly excellent with a detailed and expert pair of central performances from Naomi Frederick as the delicate, pale but quietly determined Agnes, and Matthew Flynn as Otto, her warm but mercurial Danish artist lover. Both gave performances which were painterly-rich in subtlety and nuance. The whole cast do excellent work, and it is a tribute to the casting that the face of each actor suggests the Edwardian era, which is a help to the credibility of the production.

The exploration of a woman’s feelings and her right to an authentic life in a patriarchal society is a vital (and still relevant) issue. Scripted here by a young man, it feels sincere but somewhat muted next to the work of writers such as Githa Sowerby whose play “Rutherford and Son” was pretty much written at the same time as this play, with its strong and outspoken female characters. Nevertheless, we all need to be reminded of women’s struggles through history, and as such this play is an elegant, though small, voice joining those others that echo down the ages.

Agnes Colander plays Jermyn Street Theatre until March 16th.
Information and tickets here. The play has also received 5 Offie (Off West End Theatre) Nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Lighting, Director and Set design.

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