Stage Door Review

The Fourposter

Monday, August 8, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Jan de Hartog, directed by Laurel Smith

Classic Theatre Festival, Arts Court Theatre, Ottawa

August 5-28, 2022

Michael: “I have the choice between bed and the madhouse. I prefer bed”

In October 2020 the Classic Theatre Festival, the only professional theatre company in the Ottawa Valley, made the difficult decision to cease operations after ten years. Now in August 2022 the Classic Theatre Festival has taken the first step towards a return, leaving its former home in Perth and reopening in Ottawa. In 2019 before the pandemic the CTF had presented five plays, two by George Bernard Shaw (the most of any company in Canada outside the Shaw Festival) plus a number of theatre-related activities. For its relaunch in Ottawa this year CFT has chosen Jan de Hartog’s warm, highly enjoyable 1951 comedy The Fourposter, and all signs point to a happy future for the company at its new home in the Arts Court Theatre.

In a year of political divisiveness, war and the continuing of the pandemic, CTF Artistic director Laurel Smith is right that a gentle comedy like The Fourposter is exactly the kind of play people will want to see to reground themselves in an aesthetic that expects people to be kind to each other. Those hoping for a comedy where men and women shoot zingers at each other for two hours as in a Neil Simon play, should look elsewhere. De Hartog is interested in how comedy arises out of natural misunderstandings. Those who expect a play in which a couple tears itself apart as in plays by August Strindberg or Ingmar Bergman, should also look elsewhere. De Hartog’s goal is to create a portrait of  happy marriage. That doesn’t mean he is unaware of the feelings that break marriages up.

Rather, and surprisingly for 1951, he presents key issues that could cause a couple to collapse but shows that confronting rather than avoiding these issues leads his couple to grow stronger. De Hartog (1914-2002) wrote the play in English in 1947 when he was still a Dutch national in hiding from the Nazis. Contrary to the world he was living in, De Hartog, who would become a Quaker when he emigrated to the US, wanted to demonstrate that love can conquer disharmony.

In 1931 Thornton Wilder wrote The Long Christmas Dinner which in only 40 minutes depicts nine generations of the same family as they have one Christmas Dinner after the next with one generation succeeding the next. De Hartog’s full-length play is not as extreme in the length of time that it compresses. The one constant in Wilder’s play is the dinner table but not the individual people who dine there, whereas the two constants in De Hartog’s play are the fourposter bed which sits at centre stage and the one married couple who use it.

De Hartog follows the lives of Michael (Scott Clarkson) and Agnes (Alison Smyth) from their first night together after marriage in 1890, through scenes in 1891, 1901, 1908, 1913 to 1925, when they decide to move out of their big empty house to an apartment. In the first scene newlyweds Michael and Agnes have grown up in such a restrictive time that they not only have not slept with each other before but have never seen a member of the opposite sex naked before. Much humour arises in their awkwardness and in their vain attempts to conceal their awkwardness.

The next four scenes all concern the theme of one or the other of the two feeling unwanted. In 1891 we see that the couple has overcome their shyness because Agnes is eight months pregnant. Michael, however, is feeling down because he fears that the baby will replace him in Agnes’s affections. By 1901 it is Agnes who is feeling down. Michael, who has been an unsuccessful author until now, has just had a major success. With all the all the attention the book has brought him, including that of a mistress, Agnes is now feeling unwanted. By 1908 when their two children have become teenagers, both Michael and Agnes fear they have become unwanted because their children seem to have learned nothing from them and do whatever they want.

Agnes’s feelings in 1913 will strike modern audiences as the most serious blow to the couple’s relationship. Now that both children are married, Agnes, who has never had a role outside the home, realizes that she has never lived: “My life long I have been a mother; my life long I’ve had to be at somebody’s beck and call; I’ve never been able to be really myself, completely, wholeheartedly. No, never! From the very first day you have handcuffed me and gagged me and shut me in the dark. When I was still a child who didnt even know what it meant to be a woman, you turned me into a mother”. Agnes is comforted when Michael tells her that he owes all his inspiration and success to Agnes, but De Hartog has had Agnes put forward Agnes’s then radical case so forcefully that motherhood does not necessarily fulfil a woman that the idea still hangs in the air even after Agnes and Michael are reconciled.

Laurel Smith has found excellent actors for Michael and Agnes in Scott Clarkson and Alison Smyth, who have both acted for CTF before. Clarkson will be known Toronto audiences for his appearance in such non-mainstream plays as Kat Sandler’s LoveSexMoney in 2012 or Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand in 2013. He has perfected the role of a foolish person who is so full of himself that he doesn’t recognize his own foolishness. So it is with his portrayal of Michael Clarkson which reveals Michael as an egotist when he fears that a baby will claim all of Agnes’s affection. His Michael becomes even more selfish when his first success as a writer goes to his head, even though he knows that what he has written is rubbish. Indeed, Clarkson clearly highlights De Hartog’s overall characterization of Michael as a fundamentally good, kind person who will simply not attain wisdom with age.

De Hartog demonstrates exactly the opposite with Agnes who begins the play just as fearful and ignorant as Michael, but who grows in depth and self-knowledge throughout the action in a way that Michael never does. Smyth carefully outlines this inner growth in Agnes so that, despite the notion of the period that the man is the head of the household, we soon realize that it is the levelheadedness and ability to compromise of Smyth’s Agnes that holds the couple together not the vanity or instability of Clarkson’s Michael.

Thus, while De Hartog celebrates the ability of the couple’s love to smooth over the rough patches in their relationship, he also makes us realize that one partner, namely Agnes, has to compromise much more than does the other partner. On the surface De Hartog’s play may seem a simple celebration of marriage as a venerable institution, but below the surface he also shows us all the fault lines where this institution could easily break apart.

While The Fourposter is known as a two-hander, director Laurel Smith has brilliantly turned it into a four-hander. Even though all six scenes of the play are set in the same bedroom, changes are needed between scenes to mark the changing of the years, including alterations to Holly Meyer-Dymny’s cleverly designed set. These very fussy changes could have been done by stagehands, but Smith has decided to use two “crew dancers” –  Olivia Gault and Ethan Carty – to play Michael and Agnes’s pert maid and sturdy handyman/chauffeur.

Jessica Vandenberg has minutely choreographed the movements of the two so that the scenes changes which could have been tedious become delightful interludes in the acton and deliberatey break the fourth wall illusion. Not only that, but the characters Gault and Carty play, who have taken on the names of Elise and William, go through a courtship, marriage, frosty patch and reconciliation that mirrors that of the main couple. Gault and Carty received a hearty well-deserved round of applause on their last exit.

The Classic Theatre Festival has as its mandate the “classic hits of Broadway and the London stage”. Given that Artistic Director Laurel Smith also has an affection for Shaw, the CTF has functioned as kind of Shaw Festival East since its inception in 2010, having presented Shaw’s Arms and the Man, Candida, Overruled, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Androcles and the Lion and Pygmalion along with numerous plays by Shaw’s contemporaries. It is a relief that CTF has found a new home and, based on the high quality of The Fourposter, we eagerly look forward to CTF’s two-play season next year that brings us the comic rarity Henry Verneuil’s Affairs of State (1950) and the popular Anthony Shaffer thriller Sleuth (1970).

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Scott Clarkson as Michael and Alison Smyth as Agnes in 1890; Alison Smyth as Agnes and Scott Clarkson as Michael in 1925; Olivia Gault as Elise and Ethan Carty as William. © 2022 Jean-Denis Labelle.

For tickets visit classictheatre.ca.