|Clare Holman and Susannah Harker in Each His Own Wilderness (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)|
Following on directly from Paulette Randall’s piquant production of Mustapha Matura’s Play Mas [review here], Paul Miller’s first Orange Tree season (now sans regular Arts Council funding, for shame) offers another superb rare revival of a Royal Court-premiered play. This time out, Miller himself is directing Doris Lessing’s Each His Own Wilderness, in the play’s first major production since its debut at the Court in 1958. It proves to be another occasion to celebrate, for Miller’s is an arresting, razor-sharp revival of an absorbing, provocative piece, illuminated by terrific performances, including two – from Clare Holman and Joel MacCormack – that it’s worth crossing the country to see.
MacCormack plays Tony, a 22-year-old who, following the completion of his National Service, returns to the family fold to find his widowed mother, Myra, shacked up with a guy his own age: moreover, Myra’s young man, Sandy, happens to be the son of her own best friend, Milly. Swearing and trouser-wearing, Myra, it soon emerges, is a sexual and political radical - her current cause is protesting the H-Bomb –who views Tony’s anti-activism stance as disdainfully as he views her commitment to causes. The conflicts that erupt between the pair – exacerbated by the appearance of Myra’s other ex-lovers and by Milly’s return from the Far East – point to a wider schism between the generations in terms of sexual and political attitudes.
Objectionable as it may be to speculate, Lessing appears to have been working through some very personal emotions in Each His Own Wilderness, particularly in relation to motherhood and the legacies of her left-wing political engagement. The result is a fascinatingly conflicted work that pulls the viewers’ sympathies every which way. No precursor to the awful, accusatory blame-the-baby-boomers dramas that were so prevalent a few years ago, the play is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of its characters, none of whom are demonised and all of whom we may see as foolish and wise, selfish and admirable, at different moments in the piece.
The play’s tone is as slippery as its allegiances: Lessing’s writing combines epigrammatic wit with moments of Ibsen-esque intensity, and there’s even a slight flirtation with farce before a truly wrenching climax. And if some of the political chatter feels a mite forced on occasion, the play brilliantly reveals the vexed complexities of its period, a time that’s all too readily diminished as merely drab or uninteresting these days. Cynicism versus belief, the advocating of revolution based only on particular models, sincere concern for the world’s future marred (or is it?) by moral compromise in one’s personal life, the spectre of the Spanish Civil War, the crimes committed under Communism … Lessing explores all of this in a rich and relatable way.
|Joel MacCormack in Each His Own Wilderness (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)|
At the play’s centre is a troubled mother-son relationship, with inevitable echoes of Hamlet, Ghosts and, especially, The Vortex. And Holman and MacCormack are simply sensational as they reveal the depth of Myra and Tony’s ties of loathing and love for each other. Astutely designed by Tom Roger, the production also feels fully inhabited across the board, with great work from John Lightbody and Roger Ringrose as Myra’s other suitors, from Josh Taylor as the ingratiating, calculating Sandy, and from Rosie Holden as a bewildered girlfriend brought into the fray. And though it’s something of a challenge to imagine Susannah Harker’s bodacious Milly travelling Asia to aid peasants, Harker is a striking presence, especially in a memorably brutal post-coital scene.
Lessing’s play sometimes seems a bit too pleased with itself for its own sexual frankness and daring. But its intelligent, insightful and complex examination of two generations’ disillusionment with each other succeeds in getting under the skin.
Booking until 16 May.