These days it is rare to see a W Somerset Maugham play in the West End and people can be surprised to discover that Maugham wrote over thirty plays, most of which were performed in the West End, and that, at one point in 1908, he had four plays running there simultaneously. He was a prolific writer and one of the greatest English authors of the Twentieth Century.
Like the plays of Terrence Rattigan, the plays of Maugham fell out of fashion in the final decades of the last century, the notion being that they were too “old-fashioned” for audiences who were used to Pinter, Beckett, Stoppard, Brecht, Churchill and the like. They are rarely revived these days, which is sad for everyone, but especially for the theatre.
Old-fashioned is a term used, more often than not these days, detrimentally, as if there was something wrong with being old-fashioned. In theatrical terms, though, old-fashioned is an indication of structure, form and an equal emphasis on plot and character. It is an indication too of a reliance upon language and setting, and the place in history where the first performance occurred. It evokes the notion of drama in the pre-Television era – when audiences were prepared to watch and listen, and be absorbed into a different world. When audiences were willing to consider and think about what played out before them, rather than just have spectacle and shock and awe substitute for illumination of the text.
Theatre is not television; nor is it film. And while filmic and big scale theatre is possible and desirable, it should not be the only sort of theatre on offer. Small scale, intensely felt, and deeply moving theatrical drama is just as important as operatic achievement in drama. The truly important thing is for the text to be illuminated for a modern audience and for theatre to be a place of constant and infinite variety: such matters are way more important than shock tactics such as presenting a well known text in unusual ways (unless that presentation adds something to the theatricality of the production or the quality and depth of the illumination).
Howard Davies’ exquisite production of Maugham’s For Services Rendered, now paying at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, is an example of good old-fashioned theatre. This is a beautiful, carefully thought through, production of a serious play, a play written by Maugham in obvious anger about the plight of servicemen returned form the trenches of World War One and left to their own devices.
Davies plays everything exactly to period. Except in one case, the actors all seem plucked out of a long ago time; there is no modernity about the playing. This wholehearted embracing of the period makes the beliefs and eccentricities of the characters entirely plausible and, quite quickly, as a result one is lost in and intrigued by their far-away world.
Partly, this is about accents, posture, and the way life is given to the words Maugham wrote. There is a fragility, an earnestness, a gentile sophistication about almost every phrase, which puts you much more firmly in the middle class world that Downton Abbey hints at but never explores.
Of course, Davies completely understands that by putting everything solidly in time-capsule mode, and adhering to the style and type of presentation Maugham might have expected when the play was written, the power of the play is unlocked for modern day audiences.
The tensions which underpin the drama are as current now as they were then: infidelity, the patriarchal disdain for the working woman, friendship versus business, sex versus love, parental sacrifice, parental indifference, the plight of the unmarried, the rich versus the poor, and the continuing disregard Governments show for those who go to war at the request of their country.
Seeing these issues play out in a cosy domestic scene, albeit one unrecognisable from any domestic scene likely in modern television or film drama, underlines their power rather than diminishes them. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
I doubt anyone could hope for a finer, more delicate production of this great play. It is genuinely funny in parts, full of melodramatic touches which are not silly but insightful, and incredibly moving when the final scenes play out. Davies is at the top of his game here – this is a symphony of theatrical pleasure. It should transfer to the West End and play and play. Producers should not be fearful of a good old-fashioned triumph.
William Dudley’s set design is excellent, breathlessly and entirely evoking the sense of time stood still in the country. The backdrop shows off the rolling hills of the estate, but there is also barbed-wire clearly in view: a nod to both the horrors of war and the working world of the countryside. At first the barbed wire seem too much, but actually, as the family home is revealed as the true battlefield here and as lives are brutally altered in the drawing room, it serves as a reminder that war and casualties can be found anywhere.
Mike Henderson lights the stage to perfection, and the moodiness in the lighting underlines the flow of the drama. Dudley’s costumes are quite beautiful and give the wonderful false impression, along with the set, that this might be a jolly good romp in drawing room comedy style. It’s a great bluff.
The cast is first rate.
Stella Gonet is delicious as the matriarch with a firm will and a weak body; Matilda Ziegler does a marvellous line in a broken, betrayed and, ultimately, bilious second wife; and Anthony Calf shows a distinctly unpleasant side to his range of English characters which is fascinating to behold. Simon Chandler’s tense, uptight and pedantic country solicitor cum father of the house is a delight (he is so dour and awful he is hypnotic) and Nick Fletcher is quite remarkable as the returned soldier who has lost everything and can’t bring himself to do the one thing that would save him.
But the best performances come from the three very different sisters in the household: Justine Mitchell’s pitch-perfect Eva, whose beau was killed at war and who has been left on the shelf and given caring duties for her injured brother; Yolanda Kettle’s sprightly and determined Lois, who will do almost anything to escape the future Eva has in store; and Jo Herbert’s pragmatic and smart Ethel whose marriage is not what it might be. Together, these three wonderfully gifted actresses bring a true sense of sisterhood to what they do, brightly depict the lives Maugham had in mind and but also reflect how the tragedies of those long-ago lives have resonance today.
There is good work too from David Annen as an angst-ridden Doctor and Sam Callis as the lusty Howard, who wishes the war was still doing strong given how much sex he could have with girls just because he wore a uniform. It is difficult to play a blind person on stage, but Joseph Kloska makes a determined effort. There was a lack of constant bitterness in his performance, and that absence undermined some of his scenes. But this is a small quibble.
The scene where Mitchell’s Eva awkwardly tries to solve the problems for Fletcher’s Collie is extraordinary to watch, superbly handled by both. It is difficult to breathe when it is over, so powerful are their performances. And her descent into broken disarray is done with flair and nuance. Quite remarkable.
Theatre should be about possibility, imagination and involvement. Anyone who is not in thrall to these excellent performances in this excellent production of this excellent play really needs to question what they want from the theatre.
It might not be a “Big Deal”, but it definitely is the Real Deal.