Saturday 27 December 2014

Wilder than Wilde . . . a suprisingly feminist play

The Constant Wife

Published 08/06/2006 | 00:11

'THE Constant Wife' is Somerset Maugham's wittiest piece of theatre. It had a sensational success in New York in 1926 and later in London. Maugham is sometimes seen as Wilde's successor.

He is quite different, however, delivering hard, radical theatre behind the glittering facade of the English comedy of manners.

What he does have in common with Wilde is the epigram, but his view is cool and sardonic. Above all he wants to tell a story and is supremely good at it.

'The Constant Wife' is Constance Middleton, played with ravishing aplomb by Paris Jefferson in a debut performance at the Gate.

She copes in a vital and witty way with her husband's infidelity, her friend's betrayal, her sister's stupidity and her mother's wisdom.

She takes on a lover of her own and ends up triumphantly setting aside morality and philosophy in favour of letting people live their indiscretions as they see fit.

Susan Fitzgerald is the wise mother, philosophizing wittily about how women cope with men while at the same time watching her daughter triumphing at the task. Jade Yourell plays the flighty, pampered mistress, flaunting herself outrageously in an attractive performance, while Judith Roddy is a pretty termagant, full of sharp judgments and harsh intent.

'The Constant Wife' is a surprisingly feminist play.

All Maugham's men in it are fools except the butler; the biggest fool being Constance's husband, John, whose love affair is exposed and whose playing, both before and after his disgrace is well worked out and well-timed.

Stephen Brennan's lover is studied and appealing, though the part is as shallow as a puddle. Michael James Ford plays the silliest male of all, a cameo role of the outraged husband whose wife is betraying her best friend, Constance, with the bumbling John.

The single set evokes wonderfully the 1920s and the costumes by Peter O'Brien are sensationally good.

This is a crisp, well-paced work, full of truth and reality, its smart, sophisticated facade punctured regularly by the sardonic penetration of an excellent writer whose revival is much overdue.

BRUCE ARNOLD

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