RADICAL FEMINISM – IT’S NOTHING NEW…
Now here’s politics! The mistress of the runaway Tory MP is a revolutionary preacher, previously known as Mad Agnes. She berates her lover with “Accident of birth sent you to the wrong side of the House; influence of family kept you there – supporting the Party that retards, the Party that preserves for the rich, palters with the poor!”. Having converted him to the cause of progressive radical moralities, when the poor sap buys her an evening dress she scorns it with “Would you have me hang this on my bones? Rustle of silk, glare of arms and throat, they belong to a very different order of things from that we have set up!” . Good grief: it is still only 1895, and already we have a prototype 1970’s feminist bra-burner.
Arthur Wing Pinero is best known now for The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and his The Magistrate was lately at the National. This one, set in Venice amid expatriate English, hasn’t been revived since 1895 with Mrs Patrick Campbell shocking the bourgeoisie. But it is a fascinating, dramatic, verbose take on the hypocrisies and emerging radicalism of the age – a nice companion-piece, indeed, to Ibsen’s GHOSTS just up the road, another moral cornerstone of the changing century. So credit to Primavera for reviving it in this tiny theatre, tidying away a few minor characters and delivering – with a cast of nine – Abbey Wright’s spirited production. There’s a suitably leprous palazzo backdrop by Cherry Truluck and an intelligent, lead from Rhiannon Sommers as Agnes: open-faced , striding, and confident that womanish emotions can’t weaken her until they suddenly do. As she cries “To be a woman is to be mad”.
She is counterpointed by a fine Julia Goulding as Gertrude, the virtuous Yorkshire widow grieving a lost child, who befriends her despite an initial moral shock at the free-love views and bitter conviction that marriage is a “choked-up, seething pit”. Max Hutchinson plays Agnes’ Hugh-Grantish wimp of a lover Lucas, and Christopher Ravenscroft (in gorgeous spats) delivers a very subtle performance as the world-weary silver-haired rake of a Duke, sent by the family to reclaim the runaway MP but finding himself drawn to the vitality of the “dowdy demagogue, a shabby shapeless rebel”. He alone realizes what the evening frock is doing to her. “In your dowdy days you had ambitions..they were of a queer gunpowder-and-faggot sort, but they were ambitions”.
The story played out by these layered characters is as if George Bernard Shaw had fallen under the influence of Charlotte Bronte, and the second act rises to a terrific confrontation. Agnes is leaving Lucas, but his wife and brother are horrified to find that without her, he still won’t come home. Shockingly the wife pleads with the mistress to go back and be set up in a quiet suburban lovenest so she can remain his ‘a la mode’ public wife.
It’s rich with ironic contradictions, uncanny modern parallels and one of the cruellest portrayals anywhere of a particular kind of vain male politician. The sort who has “Ambition without confidence” and feeds on applause, praise, and female admiration. Ouch!
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