Pros: Outstanding performances bring passion to an effervescent script.
Cons: Written 15 years ago, some of the sexual mores can seem outdated.
An older man leaves his wife for a younger woman. It’s a story we’ve seen dozens of times before – but in Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s hands this age-old tale becomes something entirely new, through well-rounded characters and thought-provoking dialogue.
George, in a compelling performance by Henry Goodman, is a celebrity intellectual, who dispenses his wisdom through TV appearances and his column in The Times. But fashions are changing: his editor wants him to start blogging, and he’s scared of the younger journalists who can relate world events to Love Island. So he agrees to be interviewed by 20-something journalist Claudia, for her book ‘Rationalism in a Post-Rational World’. Her character is stridently played by the sensual Katie Brayben, who is entranced by George’s celebrity and attracted to his intellect; seducing him is a mere formality.
George’s wife, Honor, was a celebrated poet before she married George 32 years earlier, since when – so Claudia insists – she has subjugated her talent to his, fading into the background so as to further her husband’s career. The role is touchingly brought to life by Imogen Stubbs, who veers between defensive submission and justified outrage at his betrayal.
The script is taut, lean and full of witticisms that fall midway between Oscar Wilde and David Hare. “Young women don’t like to be seduced, but they do like to be seen to be seductive,” George observes. “I’m very happy to be middle class,” Honor explains. “It’s only the young middle class who find that derogatory.” And when George is accused of cynicism, he counters: “I like being cynical. It’s more jaunty than hopeful.”
In leaving Honor, George is following his heart but, as Claudia questions, “Why does the heart take precedence?” George is also berated by his daughter, Sophie – a small part, brought vividly to life by Natalie Simpson – who produces one of the most touchingly emotional speeches in the play, bitterly bemoaning her inarticulacy in a string of sentences that rarely reach a conclusion.
Aside from the pun on Honor’s name, the title harks back to the ‘honour’ of the wedding vows. What does this word mean, in today’s context? Strip away love, decline to obey, and what’s left? When George offers a peaceable break-up by dividing everything equally, Honor bitterly counters: “You take half of my misery, and I’ll take half of your joy.”
Honour is a careering ride through a battered emotional landscape. The impeccable star cast are magnetic in their portrayals, and the script is nicely judged – witty and light in the first half, tortured and incisive in the second. Written in 2003, the play clearly belongs to an era before the #metoo generation and the many scandals that highlight the sexual power of celebrity; but it manages to entertain and outrage in equal measure.
Author: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Paul Robinson
Producer: Tiny Fires Ltd
Booking until: 24 November 2018
Box Office: 020 7870 6876
Booking Link: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/honour