21 MARCH 1992, Page 44


Heartbreak House (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Ship of fools

Christopher Edwards

Here is a revival of a play by Shaw (he thought it his masterpiece) that is hardly ever seen. The production features a rare appearance by one of the undisputed great actors of our time, Paul Scofield. Audi- ences will rightly flock to the Haymarket to see and hear him in action. (The rest of the star-studded cast — which includes Vanes- sa Redgrave, Felicity Kendall, Daniel Massey, Imogen Stubbs and Oliver Ford Davies — might also inspire a certain inter- est.) What will they make of Shaw's strange, sprawling and ambitious work?

Heartbreak House was completed at the end of the first world war. Shaw gave the piece a subtitle, 'A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes'. When the curtain rises there is certainly a hint of Chekhov in the air. We seem to be held in a suspended time frame, full of sunshine and birdsong, while assorted characters, all living agreeable buf futile lives, wander about philosophising. The set, by William Dudley, is an inspired cross between a large country house and the poop of a ship. Captain Shotover (Paul Scofield), who is 88 years old, bearded and not all there, lives in the place with one of his daughters, Hes- ione Hushabye (Vanessa Redgrave). He has another daughter, Ariadne (Felicity Kendall), who returns home after 23 years. They have broken his heart, we under- stand. The young Ellie Dunn (Imogen Stubbs) comes to an understanding with the Captain and cradles him at the end.

It takes more than an old man with daughters to justify comparisons with King Lear, although Shaw, typically, was willing to do so. And it is true that the play aims at harnessing a grand spirit of despair. Eng- land is exhausted. The English are washed-

up. Their hearts are hard, their brains are soft, their politics are run by philistines, their culture by deadbeats. Paul Scofield looks and sounds like an Old Testament prophet, and if there is a message being broadcast from the poop deck it is that the country is manned by fools and is heading for the rocks. After the experiences of the first world war newfangled weapons of mass destruction threaten the world Captain Shotover himself is much interest- ed in dynamite. At the close, there are some spectacular explosions as bombs rain down on Heartbreak House.

Shaw may have tried to invoke the fluid, discursive style he found in Chekhov. Some of the themes touched upon carry echoes of D.H. Lawrence and even Ezra Pound. Shakespeare we have already mentioned. These are grand outriders to the Shavian motorcade. But I found myself thinking of someone else. When the ingenue Ellie Dunn arrives at Heartbreak House she is shocked by the casual manners, outspoken- ness and bohemianism of this leisured fam- ily. Hesione wafts in eventually, wearing a purple cloak, Captain Shotover barks out cryptic insults and disappears, Ariadne demands that someone in her family recog- nises her. Meanwhile a long-suffering ser- vant, Nurse Guinness (Peggy Marshall), sails through all this chaos unperturbed. Behind all this brittle, bohemian whimsy I kept thinking of Noel Coward.

But, in truth, the virtues and vices of the work are all Shavian in the end. Captain Shotover's house is a place of dreams. Trevor Nunn, the director, captures this still, haunting mood very well. Scenes dis- solve, the light fades, characters shed their workaday masks and some of them gain insights into themselves. Young Ellie, for instance, moves from breathy, romantic ingenue to stony-hearted fortune-hunter in one funny and pointed scene. Her heart is broken when she discovers that the picaresque lover of her dreams is a fraud. She sets her sights on the vulgar capitalist Mangan (another fraudster). She hypnotis- es him (literally) and then dances around his static form anatomising his character. Mangan too learns about his heartless busi- nessman self, but it is too late for him (and this element of England) to change.

Hesione is a siren. She entices men and, once in the house, they fall under her spell, charmed and incapacitated. Her husband Hector (Daniel Massey) is the prime exam- ple of her success. This dashing soi-disant man of action has been turned into a household pet. His practical abilities are limited to fantasy duels and wooings. Heartbreak House contains a hotchpotch of ingredients, but one of them is certainly an attack on the Bloomsbury way of life and and its debilitating culture of personal rela- tionships and aesthetic refinement.

Shaw was notoriously long-winded. This play suffers from a combination of the playwright's estimable desire to experiment and his inability to focus his material. The scenes where Shaw erects his clever, para- doxical arguments about sex, women and marriage come alive. There is a vintage piece of pointed Shavian playfulness when a burglar (Joe Melia) is caught and turns the tables on his captors in the twinkling of an argument.

But it is hard to concentrate on the play as it unfolds. The production lasts three and a half hours. Scofield succeeds in investing Captain Shotover with gravitas and pathos — that is, we listen rapt to the voice as it swells deeply or quavers help- lessly, and we admire his beard and hair and his magnetic presence. Whether we lis- ten very much to his speeches I rather doubt. The rest of the cast are always watchable moment by moment and none of the performances can be faulted. They are by turns funny, quirky, anguished, resigned, helpless, vengeful, violent, dogged, hopeful and hopeless. Above all, of course, they talk. These impressions may represent a triumph for Shaw's original intentions, but you never feel that the characters really live or that their talk coheres into any sort of satisfying dramatic whole. Against this, I find that isolated images from the produc- tion stick in the memory, which suggests that the work carries an imaginative charge that, in part, prevails over the sprawl.

`Wretched joyriders!'