Honour, Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

Rhoda Koenig
Tuesday 04 March 2003 01:00

"Honour... Honour." A man calls his wife's name softly, as if seeking comfort. He tells her he is leaving. What? she asks. You, he says. Honour moves her hands apart and asks, "This...? This..? Our...?"

This scene of linguistic and emotional fragmentation is moving, far more so than the fluid, articulate exchanges – suspicious even if three of the four characters are writers – that make up most of Joanna Murray-Smith's play. The evening is frequently painful and disturbing, but its effects owe more to Roger Michell's direction and a superb cast than to the script.

William Dudley's set, in which the actors stand on and are framed by sheets of blank paper, may represent the as yet unwritten chapters of the book of life, but it could also symbolise all the things left out of this 100-minute drama of divorce. Murray-Smith indicts George, who has left a perfect marriage of 32 years to shack up with a girl half his age, for superficiality and inhumanity.

But one could say the same of a playwright who allows her characters no tastes, history, or desires beyond their roles of Bad Husband, Wronged Wife, Distraught Daughter and Selfish but Pitiable Other Woman. Murray-Smith describes her style as "heightened" and "lyrical," but these adjectives seem less applicable than "prissy" and "empty."

George in particular is an underwritten cliché, made sympathetic by Corin Redgrave only because he remains a sad sack throughout, despite constantly talking of his new-found passion. As the tootsie, Catherine McCormack is, refreshingly, no seductress but a mousy girl whose ignorance and selfishness George mistakes for strength. But the relationship makes no sense unless we believe the two are really heating up the sheets, and there is no sign of this. Anna Maxwell Martin, touchingly ingenuous as George's daughter, shows far more passion in her anger at his "love" for a girl in her twenties, a new rival sibling.

The point of the evening is Eileen Atkins, and not only because she has the biggest part and the best lines. One is familiar with her withering manner, as when she tells George: "In spite of what everyone's saying, you're not actually an idiot." But her intelligence is more apparent in earlier scenes, when Honour shifts from bewilderment to numbness to near-dementia. Atkins' subtlety, however, only highlights the playwright's lack of it

To 13 May (020-7452 3000)

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