Sunday 19 February 2017

Theatre: Henry James on love's cold revenge

The Heiress, Gate Theatre, Dublin

Emer O'Kelly

Published 28/11/2016 | 02:30

Denis Conway and Tara Egan Langley in 'The Heiress', based on 'Washington Square' by Henry James, and now playing at the Gate Theatre
Denis Conway and Tara Egan Langley in 'The Heiress', based on 'Washington Square' by Henry James, and now playing at the Gate Theatre

Henry James's novella Washington Square may be claimed generically as a tragi-comedy - but if it is, the comedy is rather at the expense of the author.

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James was not a humorous man, and his masterly portrayal of descent into unyielding bitterness could well be taken by a psychologist as a synonym for his own unfulfilled life.

The stage (and later film) adaptation The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz lacks much of the James stamp: there is little psychological probing as the action tumbles along almost merrily to its vindictive conclusion.

Well performed, however, the play gives us perfect vignettes of Catherine Sloper, protected from a realisation of her inevitably unhappy future by the self-absorbed lack of interest in her welfare displayed by a father living in perpetual mourning for his dead, beautiful, elegant wife.

Catherine is plain and gauche in the emerging sophisticated metropolitan society of 1880s New York. But she is possessed of $10,000 a year, which allows a certain type of person to glow with admiration.

Add in the additional $30,000 a year she will inherit from her brilliantly successful father, and her aura becomes spangled with stardust.

Enter the selfish, calculating wastrel Morris Townsend, living off his widowed sister, who can little afford the expense of keeping him.

A practised seducer, he has Catherine eating out of his hand. Her father, however, is less gullible, and sees off the fortune-hunter.

The irony, of course, is that Catherine is more her mother's daughter than her father realises: she believes in love, and if her fortune could buy it for her, she could live with that.

But when the ruined, broken Morris returns years later to renew his shabby courtship, Catherine has become her now dead father, and immures herself in her home, the one-time innocent glow now petrified into a thick cold shell of vindictive revenge.

It's no coincidence that the final moment of the play has her climbing the stairs slowly to an empty bedroom.

The new Gate production, directed by David Grindley, has a lot to recommend it, in that he gives full force to the minor characters, allowing excellent pieces of stagecraft from Marion O'Dwyer as Aunt Penniman, Tara Egan Langley as Mrs Montgomery and Mary Lou McCarthy and Helen Norton as the Almond mother and daughter.

But the almost subdued playing he imposes on Denis Conway as Dr Sloper and Karen McCartney as Catherine leaves much of the bitterness unexplored: this is, after all, a melodrama in essence.

In particular, the pivotal moment when Sloper finally turns on the daughter who embodies his lost life could do with a lot more impact.

And Donal Gallery as Morris Townsend leaves one a little puzzled as to the allure which so disastrously entraps Catherine.

The production looks lush in the extreme, with Jonathan Fensom's costumes and set perfect in every detail; while Jason Taylor's lighting outrageously (and absolutely accurately) lights them with arrogantly pervasive gloom in a dreary reminder of mid-Victorian oppressive aversion to light and air.

A depressing enough offering for Christmas, but the thinking seems to be that if it's costume, it's suitable for the festive period.

And so "we'll have great gas".

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