Monday 3rd April 2017
There is a considerable thrill to be derived from hearing the voices that this forgotten 19th century comic melodrama brings to us, voices from the past and a world we barely recognise, and yet one which – on renewed acquaintance – we feel bound to remember and respect for what it was: a phase that had to be gone through, before better things could be achieved.
Two sisters, Esther and Polly Eccles (Isabella Marshall and Rebecca Collingwood), when not earning their living by dancing in the ‘ballet' of establishments like the ‘Theatre Royal Lambeth', live at home with their widowed, good-for-nothing drunkard of a father, Paul Bradley. Isabella is courted by higher socially ranking suitors George d'Alroy (Duncan Moore), who attends with his hanger-on military chum, Captain Hawtree (Ben Starr), while Polly has attracted the upwardly mobile gas engineer Sam Gerridge (Neil Chinneck). When wind of her son's forthcoming alliance gets to his mother, the descended-from-the-plantagenates Marquise de St Maur (Susan Penhaligon) sets herself up as the major thorn in the side of Isabella's bid to rise out of (rather genteel) poverty and into the comparative comfort of life as the spouse of a minor aristocrat. She bears the brunt of the play's melodramatic tendencies, while her soubrette of a sister revels in its more comic elements. The company is well cast throughout, with particularly successful interpretations from Starr, Bradley and Penhaligon, welcome energy from Collingwood and Chinneck, and refreshingly tough-minded strength of will from Marshall.
It is the dream of every explorer in the obscure by-ways of theatrical history to light upon the chance discovery of a lost masterpiece. Such explorers deserve our admiration for their perseverance and determination in their quest to unearth masterpieces that have been buried by time and the vicissitudes of fashion, their glories forgotten by posterity. Equally, we should not judge them too harshly when what they find turns out to be less than unalloyed treasure-trove.
Thus it is with this neatly written, smartly turned, efficient bourgeois comedy from the mid-nineteenth century: ‘Caste’. The name alone indicates that it is clearly pitched at a British public comfortably au fait with the internal social structures of India – that vast tract of south Asia recently conquered and brought to heel by force of the British army after the unsuccessful uprising in 1857 against the control of the East India Company. Castes are the immutable social strata into which every Indian is born, and which circumscribe the social parameters in which he or she can move. This play appropriates the term and applies it to British society, expressing domestic social arrangements in the same inflexible terms as the much more ancient, and stable, social system of the sub-continent.
As you can probably tell, to really ‘get' this play, you have to know about the context from which it emanates. Doubtless, people in the 1860s, when this play first burst upon the world, did, and without any question the work connected with its public then more readily than it does today. However, today, we have to approach it – like any dramatic work – on its ability to create a world of its own for us to inhabit, and that's where the problems start.
As a play, T. W. Robertson's entertainment looks back towards 18th century comedies and also forward towards the personal and social concerns of late Victorians like Wilde, Shaw and Granville-Barker. In common with many plays of its era, by comparison with its predecessors and successors, it is rather on the thin side. While there is an engaging situation at the heart of the piece, and director Charlotte Peters works it for all it's worth, and although composer and sound designer Theo Holloway fleshes out the emotions of the drama and floods the theatre with much bigger music from ballet and operatic scores of the era, the sparseness of the material is its downfall. Taste has changed. We expect more substance in our theatrical company. As a curiosity, it is a noble experiment in the reanimation of a play that had its time and, for reasons that are all too visible, has not survived.
A few years ago, The Old Vic gave us a stunning rediscovery of Turgenev's ‘Fortune's Fool', a completely unjustifiably neglected masterpiece. Well, lucky them for finding it. Not everyone can be as blessed. This is a worthwhile exercise, it is well produced, well acted and well nigh bound to leave you thinking that, as far as the development of nineteenth century British theatre was concerned, so much better was yet to come.
Until 18 April 2017
Photos: Greg Veit