New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th June, 2013
In a break from her in-house style, the New Vic’s resident director, Theresa Heskins helms this subversive piece from George Bernard Shaw. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking demonstration of her versatility.
It begins as an amusing comedy of manners – a young Englishman abroad with his friend, encounters a young woman and after much stammering in a Hugh Grant vein, asks her father for her hand in marriage. And then the trouble starts. It comes to light that Daddy is Sartorius, a self-made man, whose fortune comes from ill-gotten gains. In short, he is a slum landlord, screwing every farthing he can out of his desperate tenants. Nowadays he’d be trousering huge amounts of housing benefit, while publicly railing against the high cost of welfare. The source of Sartorius’s wealth gives rise to qualms in the young man. He (Trench) has been living comfortably enough on his annual income and informs his fiancée that two can live as cheaply as one… And then the source of Trench’s income is revealed…
By the time we reach the third of three acts we have been drawn into this world, largely by dint of charming, spirited and nuanced performances by the excellent company of actors. The true colours of the characters are on show, and they are not very attractive. Blanche (the excellent Rebecca Brewer) declares how she hates the poor in an outburst that is as heartfelt as it is distasteful. As Lickcheese (great name!) the rent collector with a conscience, the lively Leigh Symonds gives us a contrasting accent to all the posh voices but he, like Trench after him, quells his qualms when his own pocket is affected. Mark Donald is both endearing and infuriating as Trench, learning the true nature of the world and casting his ideals aside. He portrays the character’s awakening very effectively; you want him to make a stand against the injustice he has stumbled upon but, of course, he can and will not. He is Nick Clegg, finding himself in bed with vipers and then cosying up with them. Andonis James Anthony is superb as snobbish arbiter of good taste, Cokane, a kind of referee to the proceedings as the argument unfolds, but ruling the roost is William Ilkley’s Sartorius. The characterisation oozes power and self-assurance. A look or a gesture speaks volumes. This is his world and you’re in no danger of forgetting it.
Beautifully designed by Michael Holt, the production boasts an ingenious set that is impressionistic in its depiction of locations ranging from a Germanic hostelry to rooms in Sartorius’s house, and subtle in its symbolic reminder that these people are living on top of the poor. The costumes are sumptuous, complementing the performances to evoke the late Victorian period. Some social mores have moved on since then but, sad to relate, some attitudes prevail.
This is the uncomfortable truth of the play: Conscience and empathy are swept aside by selfish concerns. It’s not just about protecting one’s interests; it’s about exploiting one’s position for personal gain. Today, 120 years after the play’s premiere, it is sickening to realise that both sides of the House of Commons are still riddled with people like Sartorius and Trench.