The film critic Pauline Kael once quipped that Fatal Attraction was just about 'the worst dating movie' ever made. By the same token, there must have been a time when Shaw's Getting Married (1908) would have been hard to improve on if you wanted to put a sizeable damper on a honeymoon. Described by its author as 'a disquisitory play', it emerges as a long conversation about marriage laws and customs, and a proposal that, in addition to mutual financial independence, the basis for decent relations between man and wife is recourse to cheap divorce, to be had for the asking. Unless the law of marriage were first made human, argues the Bishop (Tony Britton), who is writing a history of the institution, it could never become divine.
As Frank Hauser's revival of the piece at Chichester all too glaringly demonstrates, the fact that divorce has undergone extensive reform since Shaw wrote means that the play now presents the tiresome spectacle of someone running, with a great show of self-congratulatory audacity, against an open door. Good drama, of course, isn't outdated by historical change - modern burial customs, say, haven't put paid to Antigone - but Getting Married, despite Shaw's protestations, comes across too much like a minimally animated pamphlet to be able to dispel a superceded air these days.
Ensuring that reading the long, mettlesome Preface is a more enlivening experience than watching the play, Hauser turns in a production which, despite a few fetching performances, has about as much genuine vivacity as an elephant on downers. The proceedings ('nothing but talk, talk, talk, talk' as Shaw pre-emptively but accurately jested) occur in the Old Kitchen of the Bishop's Palace, where the guests gather for a wedding that does not come off quite as planned. The bride and groom have each received anonymously a pamphlet laying out the injustices and anomalies of marriage as currently established in British law. They are horrified and refuse to get involved. Before the couple's new- style nuptials eventually take place, the guests, who mechanically represent different interest groups and inclinations (the Army, dogmatic spinsterhood), kill time by forming an ad hoc committee to work on some form of private contract to replace the traditional marriage ceremony. Bickering ensues.
This complacent, jocose production merely underlines what feels off-puttingly hypothetical and, er, divorced from ordinary experience. Shaw was childless; he married a woman whose sole condition was that the marriage remain unconsummated and his hitherto favourite role, as Hauser notes in the programme, had been that of cuckoo in the nest, 'the ambiguous friend of an incomplete married couple'. Perhaps not best placed, therefore to see into the emotional complexities of this institution.
Dorothy Tutin and Robert Bathurst have the unenviable job of fleshing out the relationship in which Shaw's psychological quirks are most cryptically and embarrassingly encoded. Tutin has to be, among other things, a spunky, attractively common little mayoress and the Eternal Feminine through whom, in trances, her whole sex speaks. A tricky task, to which Tutin brings aplomb, if not ultimate credibility. Dripping with nicely calculated proto- Wodehousian insouciance, Bathurst is the production's best asset as her much younger admirer, St John Hotchkis, neither lover nor son but the best / worst of both worlds. In the main, though, staleness is all, extending to jokes which are well past their sell-by date.
'Getting Married' continues in rep until 24 June at Chichester Festival Theatre (0243-781312).
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