Harley Granville Barker was a director, designer and producer around the time of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, as well as an author and wrote Agnes Colander: An attempt at life in 1900. It was revived as a lost masterpiece at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath in spring 2018, under the direction of Trevor Nunn. However, some of the magic that the production had, has been lost in the transfer to the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre and it now feels a very laboured, dated piece, written and performed in the style of the period at times verging on melodrama. It has not stood the test of time of those contempories.
The woman attempting to find her life is Agnes, an aspiring artist, living alone after separation from her unfaithful husband. She finds herself torn between another artist, Otto, a rough drunken older man and Alex, a young man besotted with her. The play explores the meaning of love, sexual attraction and a woman’s role in the society of the time.
For too long the characters exclaim their lines while gazing wistfully over the audience. When they respond with laughs, it feels awkward and out of place (an odd response to the supposed tension between the four central characters and unseen fifth, Agnes’s Husband Henry).
In the Bath production, the transformation from the London flat to the coast of Northern France was magical and effectively delivered views of Otto painting on the balcony outside as the debate continued inside the cottage. In Jermyn Street, this is not possible and Robert Jones’s compromised set design, is far less effective and the critical view through the window, lost completely. It is left to Paul Pyant’s lighting design to paint the picture of the locations.
The cast, most of whom transfer from the Bath production, seem to struggle to connect with each other in a believable way in this setting. We can see too obviously that Agnes (Naomi Frederick) is worried in her strained relationship and torn between the three men in her life and her desire to be a successful artist. Her jumps of affection and loyalty toward the different men, make no sense and seem irrational and unbelievable despite the best efforts of the actress. She states that she has no soul, no self and is just the extra rib which may be how women felt at the time but here she seems more in control of her life. The other female character is the outgoing, over confident, Emmeline Majoribanks, played by Sally Scott, who becomes the catalyst for a change of direction for Agnes.
Otto, a bearish man played again by Matthew Flynn is an unattractive character and it is hard to feel anyone caring for him, let alone following him to France. Harry Lister Smith plays the young Alexander Flint, who becomes besotted with Agnes after a late-night kiss which seems to mean nothing to her. When it is stated as a fact that “women can’t be alone, they need a man”, you can’t help feeling the writing would be more believable by showing this through actions and reactions rather than declaiming statements. It feels heavy handed and stilted.
Inevitably, when a brave attempt to stage a long-lost script is made, it feels odd to criticise but somehow between Bath and London this production has lost its way and not just its set and the result shows up the flaws of the original play and its dated manners and words.
Reviewed by Nick Humby
Photo: Robert Workman
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