Last Updated on 22nd April 2015
Each His Own Wilderness
Orange Tree Theatre
In her lifetime Doris Lessing won all the glittering literary prizes including the Nobel; nor has her reputation as a novelist waned since her death in 2013. Yet there are aspects of her protean output that are still neglected, particularly her three plays, and it is one of these early works that is now revived by Paul Miller at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. Originally performed at the Royal Court in 1958 under John Dexter’s direction, Each His Own Wilderness appears at first sight to belong with the Osborne generation’s angry protest against the complacencies of Britain in the 1950s, but the reality is much more intriguing complicated, and thought-provoking.
Lessing always made a virtue of avoiding classification in both form and substance: her writing restlessly explores many different shapes and genres, both conventional and unconventional; and while appearing to embrace the aspirations of progressive causes, political and feminist, she resolutely refused to be enrolled in their number. This was an ironic, writerly stance, not simply or mainly a matter of personal cussedness. In her most famous book, The Golden Notebook, written immediately after this play (and clearly related to it), she asserts that ‘Art is the mirror of our betrayed ideals’; and on one level that novel and this play are extended commentaries on that wry, knowing observation. Not only do the characters demonstrate the human capacity to carry contradictory and mutually confounding ideals in their minds at the same time; but also our tendency to wrap up the personal in the political provokes scepticism over whether the noblest of commitments can ever be separated from degrees of self-delusion.
The play focuses on the relationship between a middle-aged widow and mother, Myra Bolton, and her son Tony, recently returned from National Service to live in their spacious but crowded London home. Myra is a woman of exceptional but exhausting variety and vitality, committed to successive political campaigns of various kinds, while also living a hectic emotional life with a succession of ‘uncles’ (as Tony calls them) who have succeeded her husband, killed long ago in the Blitz. Myra is a woman of great fascination and charm to all around her, who embraces life to the full; but Lessing uses her relationship with her son to suggest that she may do as much harm as good. Firstly we are led to believe that her energies are too generous, too diffused and chaotic to be successful: she is waylaid from even getting to the demonstration outside Parliament that is the focus of the first few scenes. Her house is full of a crowd of waifs and strays so that her son has to sleep on a couch in the hall, and the setting itself symbolizes this muddle, displacement and disorder by location in an untidy, but quite beautifully encaustic-tiled, hallway throughout.
More importantly, Myra unintentionally does a lot of damage to those who are devoted to her by ignoring or bypassing their sensitivities for the alleged good of the greater and larger cause. In a well worked through reversal of expectations it is her son who is the character who craves stability, order, consistency of behavior, and a settled domestic existence, and the parent who continually denies those possibilities. The apolitical, drily observant, sidelined Tony demonstrates the personal familial cost of activism, and longs to be left alone to devise his own way of living. Instead of being ‘tortured by things thousands of miles away’ he wants to live at home in dignity in ‘poor little Britain.’ The play’s confrontation between mother and son deepens with the best of intentions on both sides and culminates in a desolate and mutually desolating conclusion. Lessing’s final bleak commentary seems to be, as she put it elsewhere: ‘There is not much to be said for sincerity in itself.’
In a first play from an author steeped in deep and wide reading you would expect echoes of other plays, and so there are. At points Myra seems to be channeling Judith Bliss from Hay Fever, and the fraught exchanges between mother and son clearly owe something to the Coward of The Vortex. Tony has much of Hamlet’s eloquence, skepticism, playfulness and indecision as well. Other references and stereotypes can and will doubtless be found, but none of this matters if the play convinces in its own right. That it undoubtedly does. The dialogue is compellingly naturalistic, witty, lively and poignant, while also containing little jewels of crystallised insight that emerge unjarringly within the fabric of conversation. Character is deftly established both between the main protagonists and some of the lesser characters too. There are fine opportunities, well taken here above all by Susannah Harker as Myra’s sad, worldly wise friend Milly Boles, fully aware of the consequences of her own actions in a way unknown to Myra. Likewise there are fine cameos from Roger Ringrose as Mike Ferris, an older admirer of Myra, whose unrecognized devotion to her cause and causes is another casualty of ‘sincerity’, and Rose Holden as Rosemary, an ingénue in this worldly household, who makes common cause with Tony. While she has little to say, she acts beautifully off the speech and in reaction to the other characters, almost as a chorus commentating on the action.
However, this play stands or falls on the quality of the interaction between Myra (Clare Holman) and her son (Joel MacCormack). Here the acting is really very fine. Holman captures the mercurial, energizing charm of Myra and the inner sadness, insecurities and fear of ageing that drive her frenetic activity. Her goodness of intent and irresistible desire to organize others without consultation are very well balanced in a performance which has a fluid grace of movement too, lending momentum and flow to the action whenever she is centre-stage. The key to MacCormack’s performance, in contrast, lies in his stillness and poise, the way he draws you into his quiet domestic world in an unpriggish innocent way, and the beautiful verbal music he brings to his text.
The play is not without weaknesses. Some of the minor characters are very lightly sketched and offer little scope for development by the players. It is never quite clear why Myra and Philip (John Lightfoot) had such a grand passion for each other, and Sandy Boles (Josh Taylor), Myra’s love-interest at the start of the play, remains a ‘slick little go-getter’, with his relationship to his own mother frustratingly under-examined in the play. Also, Lessing takes for granted the psychological proximity of World War Two, and of the contemporary realities of the H-Bomb, National Service and other realities of the 1950s without weaving them into the texture of the play very plausibly. For these characters it may be the case that ‘politics has the same intensity as sex’, but we do not really sense it through the writing itself; and Tony’s engagement with military life disappears as soon as he takes off his uniform in the first scene change. If this play is dated in some respects it is not chiefly because the ideas have had their day but because the contemporary debates and setting are rather taken for granted instead of embedded.
With any revival the question that counts is whether the play lives in its own right again or is dependent on special pleading. I have no doubt this play has its own vitality and force and deserves to rise again. It does so ultimately because it provides a fine showcase for the key unillusioned qualities that mark Lessing’s overall greatness as a writer: on the one hand the case for organized activism and a life of commitment to visionary altruism is made forcefully; but it is balanced by an unsparing clear-sightedness about the mixture of motives and personal costs involved in such life-choices. Her unsentimental message seems to be that in a world of increasing fragmentation – between families, genders, generations and within our own personalities – there are no pat ideological solutions, only compromises that are often uncomfortable, and that the most we can often aspire to is a degree of self-awareness about our own unending contradictions and self-deceptions….Each his own wilderness.
The Orange Tree theatre has established a unique niche for itself as a home for new writing and carefully chosen revivals of long-neglected repertoire. This production is a distinguished badge added to that reputation and another notable success for director Paul Miller and his creative team in their award-winning first season.
Each His Own Wilderness runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 16th May 2015