IN BRIEF Deceptively strong, like its heroine, this 115-year old play still resonates through sensitive performances and direction
In London in 1913, Jane Clegg is little more than a utensil in her husband’s life. She endures his dishonesty, infidelity and neglect, as well as his demanding mother, as she valiantly tries to raise their two children alone. Henry, the husband, Iooks a dashing fellow, but is, in the parlance of the play (written in 1913), ” a total rotter”. We would definitely use stronger words today. His character, a travelling salesman, is a poisonous ball of weakness and cowardice who has no surviving redeeming features. Jane, on the other hand, is all restraint, sense and logic, keeping a firm lid on the continual pressure-cooker of her emotions. Both characters symbolise the status quo of the time, of the massively unequal power balance between men and women.
Money drives the action of the play as Henry’s gambling and womanizing threaten the survival of the family, and of Jane’s plans for herself and her children..
Writer St John Ervine (a staunch supporter of women’s rights, the inspiration for this play) has knitted his characters in a web of interdependence, which ratchets up the tensions felt by both the characters and the audience, although in skilful and sensitive direction by David Gilmour the humanity always comes through the writing. Here are (mostly) characters you can empathise with, each in a tricky situation of someone else’s making.
As for the women, the author skilfully presents us with three very different generations of womankind. The older, Henry’s Mother, inculcated by the belief that a wife is her husband’s “property”; the liberated and curious child, Jenny, stealing a kiss from a stranger and steadfastly refusing to listen to a boy’s bedtime story ; and Jane, literally in the middle, trying to navigate her own way forward in a world where the odds are set against her.
As an audience, we feel the absence of anyone in the play to speak up for Jane, and so, in a sense, that is the position that we assume.
Jane’s high breaking point evidences her strong desire to believe in her husband, but his absence of any redeeming feature makes it logical that she must break, and break away. The tension created between the characters is echoed in the tensions Jane feels within herself.
Alix Dunmore is quietly eloquent as Jane, a model of superhuman restraint. Constantly teased, tortured and tested, her final acquiescence to the reality of the exit of her husband, although driven by her, is still very moving to watch. A huge catharsis, and just in time.
Brian Martin gives a skilful and detailed performance as the deficient husband Henry, a mess of insecurity, all casual diversion and wafer-thin bonhomie, constantly threatening to snap into violence. His masculine arrogance is the shield for his own impotence.
The supporting cast are also well-chosen and of a high standard, each playing with absolute conviction, giving a roundedness to their characters that is satisfying to watch.
Alex Marker’s miracle of a set, an Edwardian drawing room, is a shining example of creativity, ingenuity and hard work over budget and the space constraints of the tiny Finborough.
Thanks again to producers Andrew Maunder, Neil McPherson and The Finborough for this rediscovery. How astonishing to find that a play from 1913 can potently remind us of the injustices of inequality and the necessity for strength in the face of adversity.
Jane Clegg runs at the Finborough Theatre until May 18. Information and tickets here