When Sam Walters staged The Thunderbolt - superbly - at the Orange Tree Theatre in 2010, an Arthur Wing Pinero revival was a rarity indeed. Now, just two years on, Pinero productions are suddenly popping up all over the place. The playwright’s 1887 comedy Dandy Dick was staged - alas, far from superbly - by Theatre Royal Brighton Productions earlier this year, The Magistrate opens at the National Theatre in November, and Joe Wright is directing Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ next year at the Donmar Warehouse.
In between, we have Stephen Unwin’s production of Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray at the Rose. Deemed “the greatest play of modern times” upon its premiere, Pinero’s 1893 drama has subsequently fallen into neglect along with the rest of the playwright’s output, a 1981 staging with Felicity Kendal being, apparently, its last significant outing. Unwin’s engaging revival of the play is the Rose’s second significant rediscovery in a row, following the venue’s premiering of ETT’s production of Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame last month, a drama to which Pinero’s play makes a rather interesting companion piece in its engagement with issues of gender and social propriety.
As its title suggests, the play concerns the fallout from a remarriage. The widowed 40-year-old Aubrey Tanqueray surprises his chums with the announcement that he’s about to wed Paula, a woman in her late twenties. This isn’t, Aubrey admits, “the conventional sort of marriage likely to satisfy society,” for Paula is a “woman with a past,” including previous marriages and a period as a courtesan. Aubrey is aware of Paula’s history and seems to accept it. However, the return home of his daughter Ellean, who’s decided that convent life is not for her after all, puts pressure on the pair, as the second Mrs. Tanqueray finds her attempts to connect with her step-daughter rebuffed, and the challenges facing a “fallen” woman attempting to re-enter society as a “respectable” one gradually become clear.
In a section on Pinero in Modern British Drama, Christopher Innes critiques The Second Mrs. Tanqueray as a work of Ibsen-lite “surface naturalism,” a “conventional tragedy” whose “exposure of hypocrisy implicitly condones the system that produced it.” Not only does Innes’s appraisal overlook the play’s - plentiful - comedic touches, it also ignores the even-handed sympathy of Pinero’s approach to his characters and, most importantly, the play’s critique of the sexual double-standard which views male promiscuity as simply “living a man’s life” but which harshly judges women for similar transgressions.
Unwin’s simply staged and unfussy production brings all of these elements to the fore. Wavering, like The Thunderbolt, between comedy and (melo-)drama (the latter hinted at from the outset by Paul Wills’s forbidding, black, boxy set), and between old and new theatrical traditions, the play’s tonal shifts are striking and surprising. It must be said that Unwin’s production is more adept at drawing laughs than tears at the moment, though. While Dandy Dick suggested Pinero to be a somewhat clumsy farceur, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray reveals his winning way with an epigram. An entertainingly camp, rather Wildean opening scene nicely establishes the homosocial world that Aubrey’s marriage will see him leaving, with fine work from the lively, likeable Joseph Alessi, in particular, as Aubrey’s bachelor friend Cayley Drummle. And, later, there’s a gem of a comic duet performed by Sally Tatum and Daniel Goode as Paula’s silly, squiffy friends the Orreyeds whose marriage - based around drunkenness with the occasional outbreak of violence, it seems - offers an intriguing counterpoint to Paula and Aubrey’s problematic union.
Such episodes provide the most entertaining moments of the evening. But if the production doesn’t quite build up the tragic head of steam that it needs to, it proves compelling throughout. Often compared to A Doll’s House, the play also recalls The Lady From The Sea (itself brilliantly staged by Unwin at the Rose earlier this year) in its anatomising of an awkward step-family situation, and the tensions arising between Aubrey, Paula and Ellean are well caught here. What’s intriguing is that Pinero refuses to present Paula solely as a victim of society: she’s also undone by her own idiosyncrasies, her confused sense of shame and pride, her envy and her defensiveness.
By turns vulnerable and pert, an easily bored woman who believes that servants are “only machines made to wait upon people - and give evidence in the Divorce Court,” Paula is a complicated heroine and one that Laura Michelle Kelly doesn’t entirely succeed in fleshing out in a performance that often makes the character’s jealousy and insecurity look like mere petulance. (The decision to have Kelly provide the musical interludes between scenes also seems an unnecessary indulgence.) Still, the performance has some affecting moments, notably in an excellent encounter between Paula and one Mrs. Cortelyon (superb Jessica Turner), a friend of the first Mrs. Tanqueray whom Ellean quickly gravitates towards and whose presence increases Paula’s anxieties.
Aubrey is an equally complex figure, a man seemingly accepting of his wife’s past (he describes her as “a good woman - maimed”) yet so enamoured of his (spurious) vision of his daughter’s purity that he’s happy to send the girl away lest his wife prove a corrupting influence. A gruff James Wilby starts out strong and commanding, but indulges in some hamming as the drama progresses, biting into his lines over-eagerly and adding strange pauses and emphases. In order for The Second Mrs. Tanqueray to deliver its intended emotional punch, these two central performances will need to sharpen up a touch. Even so, this is a solid and welcome revival of an intriguingly conflicted play.
Running until October 27th.
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.