Heartaches on the Home Front ; 'Versailles' Explores Loss; 'A Taste of Honey' Looks at Despair and Frustration

By Wolf, Matt | International New York Times, March 6, 2014 | Go to article overview

Heartaches on the Home Front ; 'Versailles' Explores Loss; 'A Taste of Honey' Looks at Despair and Frustration


Wolf, Matt, International New York Times


On the London stage, 'Versailles' explores loss and 'A Taste of Honey' looks at despair and frustration.

A three-act play of ideas, running more than three hours, might not sound like the most tantalizing theatrical prospect. That's especially true if you're not up to speed on the specifics of the Treaty of Versailles signed in June 1919, at the close of World War I.

But stick with the writer-director Peter Gill's new play, "Versailles," at the Donmar Warehouse through April 5, and your perseverance will be rewarded.

The actual meat of the piece lies not in the deal-making discussions that take up the ponderous middle section, but in the play's framing acts, which take place among the well-heeled inhabitants of a household not far from London whose lives are ravaged in various ways by the Great War. Mr. Gill has worked extensively as a director and adaptor of Chekhov and is appropriately attuned to portraits of social and domestic environments under stress.

The result pays off big time as we watch Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn, who play two mothers confronted with loss, preside over a community that knows what it means to be rent asunder. Ms. Annis's character has a gay son (the expert Gwilym Lee) who is visited by the specter of his covert and now-dead lover (Tom Hughes). The ghostly Gerald lives on as a kind of prod to action, pushing Mr. Lee's naturally reticent Leonard to seek out an existence beyond the middle-class comforts of tea and cake and the sometimes stifling attitudes that go with such gentility. (In his way, the questing Leonard is this play's equivalent to the radicalized student, Trofimov, in the Chekhov classic, "The Cherry Orchard.")

And as this quietly fraught dynamic is worked through, a play that at first seems buttoned-up, movingly and memorably lets down its guard.

Two other recent London openings anatomize feelings of despair and frustration as they are experienced at the other end of the socioeconomic ladder. "A Taste of Honey," the era-defining Shelagh Delaney play from 1958 that is in revival through May 11 at the National Theater's Lyttelton auditorium, tells of a mother and daughter living by their wits in a scrappy northern English milieu. It's cold inside the drafty, down-at-the-heel Salford accommodation that Helen (Lesley Sharp) and her teenage daughter, Jo (Kate O'Flynn), are attempting to call home, notwithstanding the absence of a toilet of their own and the grim presence of a gas works and slaughterhouse nearby.

Amid such spirit-dampening surroundings, Helen carries on like a good-time girl whose sexual appetite is not easily satiated. Busy with an eyepatch-wearing suitor who likes his alcohol, Helen leaves the tart-tongued Jo to fend for herself as she gets pregnant from a black sailor. The sailor soon moves on and is later replaced in the younger woman's affections by a sweet-natured artist, Geoffrey (Harry Hepple, excellent), who might make an ideal life partner if he didn't happen to be gay.

Inter-racial relationships and gay/straight friendships weren't exactly common when Delaney -- barely 20 when "A Taste of Honey" was first performed -- braved the very male world of playwriting, and it's possible to appreciate the breakthrough that this piece once represented while at the same time wanting to take a red pencil to some of its musings today. …

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