Bernard Shaw’s wonderfully wicked and witty play, The Philanderer, is a real joy to behold on hearing the text alone. Shaw utilises a seemingly innocuous configuration of love triangles to explore issues of gender, love and the self, in a way that is just as strikingly relevant today as it would have been on first viewing. Shaw takes philandering to be synonymous with – and symptomatic of – a form of undiagnosed narcissism. With this premise, his plot pushes such deductions to their logical limits in the extents to which his characters will go in order to more fully realise, quite selfishly, their own identities. In doing so, we see how complicit all involved are in the eponymous philandering of the play.
It is thus incredibly disappointing to be presented with a production that falls so far short of ever harnessing the full comedic potential of Shaw’s incredibly layered and structured story. The majority of the cast fail to give life to the innumerable examples of subtextual play in between Shaw’s lines. There is so much pregnant possibility for play in each scene of this piece, that it is hard to conceive of any actor not wanting to grasp every opportunity by the scruff of its Ibsen-related punchline. The scenes between the philanderer (Charteris) and his victim Julia Craven, and alternately with her father, should be raucously funny interchanges. Instead you do not believe, for one moment, the half-hearted physical shaking by Craven of Charteris nor the barely visible frustration of her father, supposedly at his wits’ end. There is no real listening on stage as, yet again, actors seem to be waiting for their respective turns to speak rather than engaging in any real interaction moment-to-moment. This immediately extinguishes any potential comic flame and there are many times when the potency of Shaw’s lines are relied on to provoke any sort of laughter from the audience. The stronger moments occur during monologues when actors have obviously pre-prepared certain deliveries of lines and facial expressions. It is hard to believe in a character when there is no real decipherable thread of continuity in their behaviour. All this flies in the face of the alleged liveness of the theatre we are meant to be experiencing: now, for the first and last time, never to be repeated again.
There is very little sign of direction in the piece as the actors are left to their own devices to portray dynamics and power struggles without much recourse to props or potentially dramatic staging. This poses no problem to the exception in the cast, however: Christopher Staines’s Dr. Paramore. Staines commands the space in the third act with the ease that one would expect of any professional actor and, though this is not an exceptionally outstanding performance, it services his character to hilarious effect nonetheless. The fact that the biggest laugh of the night came from Dr. Paramore attempting, whilst in the process of wooing Miss Craven, to adjust the volume his seat’s wheels were making with the floor, spoke volumes – ironically.
The fact is that The Philanderer is a play that is indeed accessible to audience members from all backgrounds. The aristocratic background of the play itself is irrelevant. What are relevant are the desires, vices and needs of the characters themselves, to which anybody can relate. With productions like this, however, there is the danger of such a play being confined to the access of various ‘luvvies’, who have only a sauvignon blanc order on their mind for the next interval. This must not be confused as any form of sardonic disdain towards members of the public. This is an actual constructive criticism and questioning of the intended function of a production and the result it is meant to be producing in its audience. I was not at all surpised to see members of the front row falling asleep or others behind them burying their heads in their hands on the beams in front of them, as if they were enduring some kind of intolerable sermon rather than a piece of live theatre. That’s not what the beams were intended for and it’s certainly not what Mr. Shaw intended his plays for either.
This is by no means an incredibly bad production, especially by today’s standards. It is, however, a sign of the times. Something needs to change, folks. Otherwise more and more audiences will be deprived of the joyous experience that a play like The Philanderer should be giving them. He wouldn’t exactly be turning his grave, but were he alive I think the playwright would have some notes of his own for this particular revival. And he certainly doesn’t seem the kind to be lost for words…
The Philanderer is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 25 June. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.