Friday 15 December 2017

Theatre: Glamour, elegance, but no substance

Summer froth is inclined to undermine the subject of the Gate's new production of Maugham

Tara Egan Langley and Caoimhe O'Malley in The Constant Wife at the Gate. Photo: Pat Redmond.
Tara Egan Langley and Caoimhe O'Malley in The Constant Wife at the Gate. Photo: Pat Redmond.

Emer O'Kelly

It'S 10 years since the Gate presented Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife as its summer offering. On re-reading what I wrote then, I have many of the same criticisms of the new production. The play was written in the 1920s, and was deliberately provocative and daring for its time. Yet once again director Alan Stanford has chosen to stage it in the 1930s, seemingly for no better reason than the frocks are prettier. Once again, Peter O'Brien designs those frocks, and once again they are delightful.

The play concerns a wife who complacently accepts her husband's philandering. After 15 years of happy marriage, they have not felt any sexual frisson for 10 of them. So, Constance Middleton, with rare emotional honesty, terms herself a "prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods", taking the advantages of a well-to-do fashionable London life while not giving the pleasures of the bedroom, the only return a non-working wife can give.

As a result, she thinks it only fair that her husband should amuse himself elsewhere. But she also turns the tables, not so much by taking a lover (which she does) but by getting a job and repaying her husband for her board and lodgings.

The fact that it's a witty comedy doesn't make it any the less subversive and uncompromisingly feminist (even though Maugham, a confirmed homosexual misogynist, had little admiration for women of any type.) So, choosing to play it as farce, which Stanford does, sells the play short.

In addition, the usual Gate virus seems to have affected some of the women in the cast: required to play English/educated/privileged roles, they contort into something that sounds like a character from Coronation Street trying unsuccessfully to take off the Queen. This is distractingly and irritatingly true of Rachel O'Byrne as Constance's unmarried and waspish sister, and to a lesser extent of Caoimhe O'Malley as Constance's best friend (and, coincidentally, her husband's mistress).

But Tara Egan Langley is both well cast and very successful as Constance, as is Belinda Lang as her horrified mother, while there's a subtly underplayed lover-in-waiting from Conor Mullen and a suitably trumped and defeated John Middleton FRCS from Simon O'Gorman. Ruth McGill, Peter Gaynor and Karl O'Neill complete the cast, playing in a re-run of Eileen Diss's original 2006 set.

Michael Colgan has programmed the Gate for a number of months ahead, but The Constant Wife is the first production since the announcement of his forthcoming retirement as Gate director.

It is undoubtedly a huge success with the Gate's core audience. That, unfortunately, is not necessarily a compliment, as that audience is middle-aged, middlebrow and middle-class, what is generically referred to in Ireland as Dublin 4. While that theatre-going sector is as deserving of being catered for as any other, and indeed is the audience with the most disposable income, it wants unchallenging, undisturbing fare with a gloss on it from writers whose reputation is safely established (and usually are dead.) Colgan is the darling of that audience, and were the Gate unsubsidised he would be entirely justified in his narrow, commercially-driven vision.

But the Gate has been in receipt of a subsidy from the taxpayer for many years, hovering around the million mark annually (and roughly 25pc of which, controversially, has gone to Colgan in salary and bonus). This has caused what is politely referred to as "tension" between the Arts Council, as the funder, and Colgan himself, who equally controversially appoints his own board and sits on that board.

The role of the Arts Council is to subsidise emerging artists and support challenging work which is unlikely to be able to survive in the commercial market. The conundrum for a good number of years has been the failure of the Arts Council to cut through the tension and demand more risk-taking at the Gate in return for continued taxpayer funds, a get-tough approach which the council has not been slow to enforce with the Abbey as the National Theatre.

But Colgan has never been one to hide his own undoubted talents under a bushel, and his self-promotion has been entirely successful with an audience that still accepts the Gate as "world-class", an epithet which Colgan's productions of Beckett and Pinter have indeed deserved, but which have sometimes been regarded as aberrations by the "core" Gate audience.

So, Colgan's successor, whoever he or she may be, will have a tough balancing act to achieve between what has become the theatre's tradition, and justifying continued subsidy from the taxpayer.

The fact that it's a witty comedy doesn't make it any the less subversive and uncompromisingly feminist (even though Maugham, a confirmed homosexual misogynist, had little admiration for women of any type.)

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