It begins with a young woman crying out in the darkness.
It begins with a young woman crying out in the darkness. Over a game of whist in her father's country house, a wager has been made that 20-year-old Ann will be able to walk to the bottom of the garden without giving vent to a scream. Lord John Carp has, however, cheated by ambushing her with a kiss and the bet is lost.
In both substance and technique, this opening episode, with its plunge into confusion and bizarre non sequiturs, establishes the tenor of what is to come in The Marrying of Ann Leete, Harley Granville Barker's remarkable first play, written in 1899 and set a century earlier. The incident prepares us for the depiction of a society where women are also used as pawns in games with serious stakes and it gives notice of an arrestingly oddball and innovative technique. The play deals with social issues but it refuses to be one-track-minded. As in Chekhov, the dialogue is straying and elliptical; meaning is captured in poetic symbols; moral concern co-exists with a keen appreciation of the haphazard and the absurd.
The piece has had only one revival in this country (by the RSC in 1975) so it's a pleasure to welcome this deeply satisfying and splendidly orchestrated in-the-round production by Sam Walters. The skill and quirky clarity of the large ensemble pull you into a world where, in the deliberate absence of clear-cut exposition, you are expected to find your social bearings by being quick on the uptake. The setting is the home of Carnaby Leete (played by Richard Howard). A devious politician with career problems, he has already condemned his older daughter Sarah (a wonderfully wounded-but-defiant Miranda Foster) to a loveless marriage to further his own ends. Now, as he contemplates returning to his original party, he hopes to smooth the way by engineering the union of his penniless younger daughter to Lord John.
The main obstacle to this is Ann. She's an innocent with unsuspected depths, and her determination to puzzle things out for herself and be her own woman is conveyed with just the right awkward integrity in Octavia Walters's fine performance. This heroine refuses to co-operate with a culture in which "a woman's profession is marriage" and defies convention by proposing to the kindly, strapping young gardener John Abud (a likeable Jack Sandle). As his name over-nudgingly indicates, this character is supposed to represent the fertility lacking in the sterile milieu of scheming power politics. Some may feel that, having defined Ann's problem, the play goes on to suggest a suspect proto-Lawrentian solution. She may have asserted her independence by rejecting an arranged marriage, but in taking on the role of housewifely drudge to a working man, isn't she simply swapping one form of oppression for another?
The final scene, set in Abud's rented cottage on the wedding night, harks back poetically to the opening episode. Instead of sophisticated darkness, the glow of a single, simple candle. The two actors beautifully convey the tentativeness and fragility of this new relationship. Having made her bed, it remains to be seen whether Ann will enjoy lying on it.
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