Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Saint Infidelity: The Circle and Yours Unfaithfully

Clive Francis and Jane Asher in The Circle. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

The two most interesting plays I’ve encountered in London over the past two weeks are century-old high comedies by English playwrights that challenge sexual mores. Both are receiving admirable productions. The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham was first produced in 1921 and long ago vanished from the repertory; it has been taken up by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, with Tom Littler directing. (The last Broadway revival, in 1990, starred Rex Harrison, who died during the run.) Yours Unfaithfully was penned in 1933 by the actor and writer Miles Malleson but remained unproduced until Jonathan Banks, the artistic director of Mint Theater Company, staged it in New York in 2016. He helms the current edition at the Jermyn Street Theatre, with a British cast.

The Circle is an unofficial rewrite of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, in which a woman, ousted from English society when she deserted her family years ago but now returned under an assumed name, sacrifices her reputation to save her estranged daughter from repeating her error. Wilde’s play descends from high comedy to melodrama; Maugham’s never does, and it’s much more fun. In it, Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall), married to a wealthy, self-involved fussbudget named Arnold Champion-Cheney (Pete Ashmore), makes plans to leave him for the far more appealing (but poorer) Teddie Luton (Chirag Benedict Lobo) the weekend she invites Arnold’s estranged mother, Lady Kitty (Jane Asher), and the man she left his father for, his erstwhile closest friend, Lord Porteous (Nicholas Le Prevost), to their home in Dorset. Arnold’s father Clive (Clive Francis) is also in attendance, having dropped by on an unscheduled visit, so both Clive and Arnold are thrown together with the disgraced Kitty, whom neither has seen in thirty years. Kitty intervenes in an effort to save her daughter-in-law from unhappiness, and Maugham leads us to expect that her counsel, in tandem with Arnold’s eleventh-hour efforts to change her mind by behaving nobly, will stop Elizabeth. These almost do the trick, but not quite: in the end, Teddie’s spirit of romantic adventure calls out to her own and they run off in Lord Porteous’s car, having reawakened memories in him and in Kitty of the excitement and emotional satisfaction of their scandalous elopement.

Reportedly, the 1921 London audience booed, and a dim 1925 silent version altered the ending to have Arnold win back his runaway wife. Maugham raises the stakes by making Elizabeth and Teddie’s romance chaste thus far – they don’t even kiss until the scene in which they declare their mutual feelings and agree to run off together, so if she thought better of it there would still be time for her to preserve her unsullied image. No contemporary audience is likely to disapprove of her choice of love over self-sacrifice and a life of unhappiness with a man who doesn’t have an ounce of romantic ardor in his soul. The play is very clever, especially in the way it uses Clive. He’s a witty charmer, and when his daughter-in-law informs him that, regretfully, he has wandered into the house, the very one Kitty abandoned, on the day Kitty and Hughie have been invited as guests, he handles the awkwardness with panache. (Francis lets us see what she doesn’t – the unsettlement he quickly buries in lightness.) And when the old unmarried couple appears, Kitty’s superficial chatter and Hughie’s bad temper lead us to the conclusion that the recklessness of their conduct all those years ago has borne bitter fruit. Clive is unfailingly gracious to Kitty, and though Porteous isn’t pleased to see him and even avers that he never liked him, Clive repeatedly reminds him of their ancient friendship. For the first act and part of the second, Clive presents as the most attractive character on stage – the most liberal-minded, the most accommodating. But when Kitty and Hughie are out of the room he compares her to tinsel and proclaims that she’s become “a silly, worthless person because she’s lived a silly, worthless life,” that she’s ruined Hughie and knows it.

At the end of the third and final act, we discover that Arnold’s generosity to his wife wasn’t his own idea but his father’s. Clive strolls onstage and declares to Kitty and Porteous that he knew it would hold Elizabeth fast to Arnold, and his smugness is insufferable. Moreover, we can see that it’s about him – that he wants his son to accomplish what he wasn’t able to three decades ago. But he doesn’t know what they and we know: that his scheme didn’t work. Perhaps Maugham’s most outrageous coup, even more daring than having Elizabeth run away with Teddie, was to bring the curtain down on Kitty and Hughie laughing, too, not with Clive but at him. But by that time Maugham has shown us other sides of Kitty and Porteous: that he’s capable of kindness and she’s wiser than we suspected. It’s as though we’d been seeing them through Clive’s biased perspective and now we’re allowed to step back and see much more.  And their relationship turns out to be more loving than their squabbling suggested.  The Circle is a skillful piece of dramatic writing, and Asher, Francis, Le Prevost, Vinall and Lobo all give commendable performances.  Ashmore isn’t up to their standard: he’s overstated in every scene, and whereas his fellow cast members have mastered the dialogue, he gives the impression of listening to his own voice. But to be fair, Arnold is a challenging role; Maugham sometimes seems to be parodying him (especially in act one). Tom Littler’s production suffers somewhat from budgetary restraints – more in the props than in Louie Whitemore’s costumes – and the in-the-round staging isn’t balanced. From my seat during crucial two-character scenes I couldn’t see either of the characters’ faces because one was turned away from me directing facing the other. But these are quibbles.

Laura Doddington and Guy Lewis in Yours Unfaithfully. (Photo: Steve Gregson)

Yours Unfaithfully takes place in the eighth year of a happy marriage between Stephen and Anne Meredith (Guy Lewis and Laura Doddington), who run a successful school. Stephen is a novelist but his writing has reached something of an impasse; he needs a burst of renewed energy, which he gets when he becomes involved with their widowed friend Diana Streatfield (Keisha Atwell). Anne encourages the affair; it turns out that did the same for her on two occasions earlier in their marriage, once when she began to sleep with their close mutual friend Alan Kirby (Dominic Marsh). But to her own surprise, when Stephen couples with Diana, Anne’s rhythms are thrown off and she realizes that what she’s feeling is jealousy. Up to this point she and Stephen have been completely in sync about marriage – agreed about the freedom to experiment with other people and assured that doing so can never interfere with the way they feel about each other. So when she experiences a rift between her intellectual and emotional responses to his sharing himself with another woman, it’s a crisis.

Malleson’s play is very smart through its unresolved ending, and the characters are beautifully drawn – especially Anne and Stephen.  They’re also, in Jonathan Banks’s production, sharply played. (In the leads, Doddington and Lewis are first-rate.) Tony Timberlake plays Stephen’s father, a canon who has been associated throughout his career with the boys’ school that Stephen himself attended. Father and son have a stormy relationship because both are obstinate and ever since Stephen was a teenager they’ve disagreed on every important issue – beginning with religion, which Stephen turned against when his father was his house master. Yours Unfaithfully begins with the aftermath of an argument between the two men and we expect that the play will deal with the ongoing tension between them, but Canon Gordon turns out to be a plot device – he doesn’t come into the play again until, having heard the rumor about his son’s affair with Diana, he visits Stephen to register his shock and dismay. Writing in the 1930s, Malleson needs this character: in order to explore the theme of sexual infidelity among people who believe in it in theory, he has to include a representative of conventional society, just as Noël Coward needs Ernest, the proper, mannerly figure in Design for Living whom Gilda marries in retreat from Leo and Otto, the two best friends between whom she has been bouncing back and forth and with whom she winds up in a ménage à trois at the end. But Ernest is a comic figure and the canon is not, and though Timberlake is fine, there isn’t much an actor can do with the role.

The madcap comedy of manners Design for Living, written the year before Yours Unfaithfully, is one of the great plays of the twentieth century, as is Coward’s earlier Private Lives. Neither Yours Unfaithfully or The Circle is in their class. But they’re estimable dramatic works that cover some of the same ground. And I wonder if Coward was thinking of The Circle when he ended Design for Living with his three protagonists laughing uncontrollably while his audience tries to make sense of their own responses.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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