Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Agnes Colander: An Attempt at Life

Sunday, March 3, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Harley Granville Barker, revised by Richard Nelson, directed by Trevor Nunn 

David Adkin in association with Adam Roebuck and Panorama, Jermyn Street Theatre, London

February 15-March 16, 2019

Agnes: “We should all have been taught more of life and less good manners”

It used to be that one of the things theatre-lovers looked forward to most at Canada’s Shaw Festival was the staging of undeservedly neglected plays written during George Bernard Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950). In 1988 then Artistic Director Christopher Newton began to revive the plays of one of Shaw’s most important contemporaries, Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946). The first was Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance in 1988, continuing periodically to 2002 with His Majesty, the seventh in the series. 

Since the current Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival has no interest in unearthing undeservedly neglected plays, it is exciting to find that other directors still do, such as the renowned Trevor Nunn, director of Cats (1981) and Les Misérables (1985), who also has a deep interest in Granville Barker. When a manuscript of Agnes Colander, a never-produced play written in 1900 by Granville Barker when he was 23 was discovered by critic Colin Chambers in the British Library, Chanbers sent it to American playwright Richard Nelson to prepare an acting edition. Nunn held public readings of it culminating in a full production at the Theatre Royal Bath in March 2018.     

That world premiere production has now transferred to the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, giving fans of theatrical rarities a chance to assess Granville Barker’s early work. While it is no masterpiece like The Voysey Inheritance (1905) or Waste (1907), it is still a play that should be better known. It demonstrates that the young playwright was willing to delve into topics not only scandalous at the time but ones still being debated today.

We first meet the painter Agnes Colander (Naomi Frederick) painting in her studio in Kensington. When she hears fellow painter, the Dane Otto Kjoge (Matthew Flynn), about to enter, she hides the painting she had been working on and substitutes another. This happens again later in the play and we do not see the what Agnes has been hiding until the very last scene.

The hale and hearty Otto notices that Agnes is a bit withdrawn and wonders what is troubling her. It happens that her husband, Henry Verity (whom we never meet), wants her to return home. She left him amicably three years earlier partially because she had married at 17 only to discover she did not love him and partially because he had been unfaithful to her. She left thinking she would be an independent woman and could finally express herself through her art. In reality, she finds that her art, which Otto calls “very pretty”, is not satisfactory. 

Otto proposes that they both go to his cottage near Vosges. Nature always inspires him and he thinks it will do the same for her. What they need to settle before leaving is what Granville Barker calls “the sex question”. Doubtless, he used this vague formulation and the vague discussion around it to avoid his play being rejected by the Lord Chamberlain’s office should he decide to submit it for performance. What the term seems to mean at least to Agnes and Otto is whether they should take their close friendship to a physical level and live in France as husband and wife in all but name. 

Before they can reach a decision they are interrupted by the arrival of Alexander Flint (Henry Lister Smith), a young man who is a friend of her husband’s. He had delivered a letter to Agnes not just as a favour to Agnes’s husband but because he is himself infatuated with her. Agnes is amused at being adored by so earnest a young man but here “the sex question” arises again. In this case, Agnes feels she is “damaged goods” and is not worthy to be any man’s first love (the implication being that Alex is still a virgin).  

In the end, Agnes and Otto move to France and tell everyone that they are married. Agnes has tea with her neighbour Emmeline Majoribanks (Sally Scott), an English widow, who reminds her of the proper way that women should behave in France. Otto is fully inspired by nature and knows he is creating great work. He thinks Agnes’s work has improved, but Agnes feels she needs the ugliness of the city to inspire a reaction in her. When Alex arrives unexpectedly, Agnes is confronted with a dilemma. Alex has deliberately lost his virginity in an effort to be on the same moral level as Agnes and is also willing to live with her without the sanction of marriage. He wants Agnes to leave Otto and return with him to England. 

What exactly should Agnes do? She left her husband for independence and freedom to work, yet now she finds she is desired by two quite opposite men – Otto, who is older, cynical and rough around the edges, and Alex, who is younger, idealistic and, except for his recent change, quite proper. Otto claims that Agnes belongs to him; Alex claims that he belongs to Agnes. Agnes shouldn’t have to choose between them at all except that she has found, to her dismay, that she needs the love of a man to be fully happy.

What makes the play feel so surprisingly contemporary is that the action consists entirely of Agnes’s various attempts at negotiating what her relationships with Otto and with Alex should be while at the same time remaining true to herself. The complication is that Agnes does not entirely know what she wants and ardent as Otto and Alex may be, neither do they. Only by bouncing ideas and possible future scenarios off each other can any of the three become clear about what their real needs and purposes are and what sort of outcome they are willing to accept. 

Many people knowing only Granville Barker’s more familiar plays and reading this play’s subtitle “An Attempt at Life” will assume that Granville Barker is presenting Agnes’s dilemma in a sternly serious guise. What is missing in the programme but is present in the edition of the play published to coincide with its first-ever performance is its second subtitle – “A Comedy in Three Acts”.  That Granville Barker conceived of the play as a comedy explains much.  It explains why the tone is so often light when supposedly serious matters are being discussed; why Alex who idolizes a married woman is so like Eugene Marchbanks in Shaw’s Candida (1894), a role that Granville Barker created; why two women who dislike each other like Agnes and Emmeline but are attracted to the same man (Otto) have a scene at tea as do Wilde’s Gwendolen and Cecily.  

Nunn does nothing to punch up the comedy in the action and gives the work a straightforward naturalistic production. Yet, given that the play is unknown and by an author primarily known serious works, it takes more time than it should for the audience to catch on to the tone and nature of the piece. The ending comes as a great surprise, but is perfectly logical if ironic when we consider the intent of the play is to be comic and provocative.

The play is very well cast and impeccably acted. The title role is a real gift to an actor since Agnes is confronted by three men who all want her just when she is trying to decide if her attempt at independence has been successful or not. In a multi-layered performance Naomi Frederick portrays Agnes as strong-willed but not incapable of self-doubt. Frederick demonstrates that a battle between the practical and the idealistic is constantly raging within Agnes and is able to have Agnes project a façade of self-sufficiency even as she hints that Agnes may not know for certain what exactly she does want in life. 

Matthew Flynn gives us a more familiar portrait of Otto as a rebellious, paint-spattered, society-scorning artist who lives life to the full and for that reason would like his friendship with Agnes to move on to sexual intimacy. Yet, much as Otto claims he needs Agnes and, worse, that she “belongs” to him, Flynn’s Otto is such a force unto himself that we do doubt how necessary she really is to his happiness. A witty scene that contrasts Agnes’s delicate eating habits with Otto’s Henry VIII-like gusto highlights more than words how Agnes and Otto are more different than alike.

Henry Lister Smith gives a fine comedic performance as Alexander Flint, who doesn’t see that his respect for social conventions clashes with his overwhelming love for a married woman. Alex solemnly tries to persuade Agnes that he would be a better partner for her than Otto, whom he regards as a brute. Agnes, of course, looks on his “love” as a boyish infatuation, but that is harder for her to do after he makes the difficult trek to find her in Vosges and to rescue her from Otto. Smith gives the role exceptional nuance in lending Alex’s early protestations of love an air of exaggeration that is replaced later with a much more genuinely somber tone.

The character of Emmeline Majoribanks functions primarily as an example of the conventional, unintellectual woman that Agnes is not. Sally Scott makes the most of Emmeline’s hypocrisy – friends with Agnes when she thinks Agnes is married, socially distant when she finds Agnes is living in sin. She brings out the comedy in Emmeline’s fear of being left alone with Otto, a fear that has to do more with her unacknowledged desire than with Otto’s overbearing nature.

Designer Robert Jones has done wonders in creating two contrasting locations on the small stage of the Jermyn Street Theatre. In a simple but effective move, he uses Otto’s huge painting of the sea in the French scenes to suggest the openness of the French countryside in contrast to the the urban greyness of London. Paul Pyant’s subtle, ever-changing lighting helps create the differing moods of the two locations as well as reflect the different moods that exist among the characters.

Harley Granville Barker, on looking over his manuscript for Agnes Colander years later, deemed it “Very poor” and marked on it that it should be destroyed. Luckily, he never followed up on his decision and luckily Colin Chambers, Richard Nelson and Trevor Nunn chose to ignore Granville Barker’s assessment. Indeed, Agnes Colander could easily have been an intense examination of what happens to an English equivalent of Ibsen’s Nora once she leaves her husband. Instead Granville Barker formulated the play as a comedy, likely influenced by Shaw, but demonstrates that he is his own man by including the topic of “the sex question”, a topic Shaw studiously avoided. 

Granville Barker’s portrayal of the ease of male independence versus the difficulty of female independence shines through as does the equally contemporary question of how to negotiate the depth of a friendship between a man and a woman, especially how to enter into sexual relations with a friend without losing a grip on one’s cherished independence.

Agnes Colander has a relevance that Granville Barker could not have imagined when he wrote the play so long ago. We owe great thanks to those who discovered and revised the play and to Trevor Nunn and his excellent cast for bringing the playwright’s fascinating characters to such vivid life for the first time. Such finds as this make one wonder what other treasures out there are still hidden.                    

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Naomi Frederick as Agnes and Matthew Flynn as Otto; Naomi Frederick as Agnes and Matthew Flynn as Otto; Naomi Frederick as Agnes and Sally Scott as Emmeline; Henry Lister Smith as Alexander Flint. © 2018 Simon Annand. 

For tickets, visit www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.