You may or may not have heard of the playwright, director, producer and actor (among other things) Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946) but he played an important role in British theatre in the early years of the 20th century, helping to put Bernard Shaw on the international theatrical map when he was Artistic Director of the Court Theatre. Though Barker’s own plays were staples in their day, they have fallen sadly out of fashion, something Theatre Royal Bath and Director Trevor Nunn seek to change with their world premiere staging of Agnes Colander, a work never before published.
Written whilst Barker was a young jobbing actor, in the days when female emancipation was ever discussed but often seemed like a vain hope, the themes of Agnes Colander are still cropping up today due to the male/female work pay gap and sexual harassment in the workplace. This play goes one further and looks at equality in love, and how men and women viewed marriage, adultery and sexual liberation differently, or should I say with entirely double-standards, the effects of which still linger over a century later.
In Edwardian England what was good for the gander was not good for the goose, for while, generally speaking, men thought they had the right to lose their virginity ahead of marriage and sow their wild oats, it was frowned upon for a woman to do so. Not only would she have been considered loose by comparison, more sensible women would have thought her lunatic for running the risk of total ruin by unwanted pregnancy outside wedlock.
Cue the radical heroine of this tale, artist Agnes Colander played by TRB regular Naomi Frederick. Having separated from her husband three years ago (itself a daring thing to do in those days), she lives alone trying to make ends meet through her paintings, though the confines of the studio and the judgemental society outside her humble attic appear to be crushing her creative flow.
Set in London and France, designer Rob Jones and Lighting Designer Paul Pyant show great partnership in creating the room in which Agnes allows us to glimpse the reality of Edwardian conventions; altering the mood and the hour by changing the backdrop of the skylight and perhaps intentionally referring to the ‘glass ceiling’.
Agnes has the equivalent of writer’s block and idles the day away troubling over a letter which arrived that morning – her husband asking her to return; the man she is deeply resentful of for having taken her innocence and ‘maidenhood’ as she refers to it, when she was too young and naive to know better or realise the implications of a disastrous marriage when ’til death do us part’ was customary and divorce was a dirty word.
It’s interesting that Barker chose to make her a painter, a career which, like that of the acting profession, was regarded as bohemian and seriously lacking in morals. It’s as if he is making excuses for her situation by giving her a persona that will understandably crave a passion that has, as yet, never been sparked. Which is where Agnes’s two love interests come in; boorish painter Otho Kjoge (Matthew Flynn) who can offer her a carefree life in Normandy, and the smart young Alexander Flint (Freddy Carter), who has developed a puppyish devotion to her, although one questions what he would do with her if he got his wish.
When the action shifts to the more relaxed setting of Normandy in act three, we can see that Otho has no wish to marry and enjoys flirting with expat Emmeline Marjoribanks (the wonderful Sally Scott), prompting more questions surrounding fidelity in or outside marriage. Meanwhile Alexander arrives announcing that he recently lost his virginity to a practical stranger out of sheer frustration following Agnes’s departure from London.
It’s no wonder this play never saw light of day when it was written, for the subject matter and sheer frankness of the writing is something we only now think of as second nature in theatre. It could still do with more revision by Richard Nelson, for currently the cast are struggling to make the over-wordy dialogue as natural as possible. Despite the best attempts by Nunn and a strong ensemble, the fact that Agnes Colander was once a pioneering piece is likely to be lost on audiences, and what was once a scandalously exciting drama is in danger of seeming rather dull by modern standards.
If, on the other hand, you are willing to put the work in context, whilst scratching the surface and really assessing Barker’s intention to observe and challenge all that was wrong with repressing the opposite sex, it will prove a rewarding evening of theatre that will leave you pondering on the women in your life, constantly seeking satisfaction and respect in love and work but rarely achieving it.
Agnes Colander at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio until 14 April 2018. For more information and tickets please visit the website.