THE usually dogsbody work of scene-shifting becomes a prominent feature of Peter James's cleverly conceived production of The Madras House - much the best contribution so far to Edinburgh's Granville Barker retrospective. At the start, you are confronted with the sight of mannequins unfreezing in illuminated shop windows and descending to become a line-up of petticoated, corseted young women who embark on circus tricks. At the end of each act, these semi-undressed figures re- emerge like half-joky, half-baleful spectres, and set about humping the scenery on and off in a frankly disgruntled manner, at one point even converting the activity into a contemptuous send-up of an erotic display.
Scarcely the sort of thing you would expect from a drama written in 1909, and indeed there is nothing like it in Barker's stage directions. The idea works well, though - not simply because the play deals, in part, with the fashion industry's exploitation of women. Worrying at the topic of women's economic dependence on men from a number of angles, this proto-feminist drama strains to go beyond the mahoganied confines of Edwardian realism. Its four acts are strikingly unpropelled by plot (in the first, the protagonist, Philip, declares his intention of leaving the family drapery business for worthy drudgery at the London County Council; in the last, he confirms this decision). Instead, they present conversational variations on a theme, and offer a look at different layers of oppressed female society.
Impressively, James loosens the play's metaphorical corsets even further. He dispenses with period clutter and gives the hero's oddly picaresque progress through the different echelons of society a spooky, dream-like quality: the same set of actresses crops up in new roles in each segment, doubling too as the scene-shifters. This subliminal effect of recurrence helps highlight the cross- class parallels, say, between the six unmarried daughters of the prosperous draper Huxtable, who are declining into a middle age of rigid respectability, still leashed to their father's ungenerous purse strings; and the closely monitored sales assistants in his drapery firm, who are forced to live in and conceal that they are married if they want to keep their jobs. Well might Philip's father, Constantine, a convert to Muhammadanism who now lives in an Arab village, refer to the clothing industry as 'an industrial seraglio'.
'Europe in its attitude towards women is mad,' contends this revenant, whose superior, silkily insinuating manner is well conveyed by John Hallam. At the fashion show in the third act his adopted cultural perspective allows him to cut through many of the western hypocrisies towards women represented with affable, near-obliviousness by the burly American businessman State (Bill Bailey, spot on). This character sees no contradiction in the male-run garment trade capitalising on the Woman's Movement and any future economic independence. To his rhapsodic way of thinking, conducted mostly on the High Ground, the link with them would be strongly philanthropic. There is a pointedly comic moment when State suddenly realises that his spoutings have detained one of the poor models. All conventional politesse, another man rushes to get her a chair. 'Thank you . . . but she can't,' hisses the camp manager, 'not in that corset.' The play emphasises, though, how Constantine's alternative to this society is more loathsome: polygamy and the relegation of women to veiled perpetuators of the race.
Roger Allam brings out well the sexless, kindly priggishness of Philip, another of Barker's 'worms', though his performance comes unstuck a bit in the awkward last act discussion with his wife (Eve Matheson), which Barker extensively revised for a 1925 revival. This production opts for the 1910 text. A line from the revision, where the wife says 'but you can't think for us', pinpoints a slight source of audience discomfiture with the play. It is crusadingly feminist, but, at times, it gives a faintly Philip-like impression of delivering a well-meaning, yet smug lecture to the ladies on how to liberate themselves. Here, too, James's subversive chorus of female scene-shifters is useful, their mocking presence piercing through any pomposity.
'The Madras House' continues until Saturday at the Royal Lyceum Theatre (Booking: 031-225 5756).
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