An everyday tragic tale of country folk, early 18th century style, is the stuff of John Masefield’s forgotten 1908 play, lovingly revived as part of the Orange Tree’s ongoing, revelatory “Shaw and his Contemporaries” season in a brief version of the full title, The Tragedy of Nan.
The whole atmosphere of the play is totally unexpected, suggesting that Masefield’s play is a missing link between Arden of Feversham and D H Lawrence’s A Collier’s Friday Night. Yeats even told Synge that Nan was the best English play since the Elizabethans. Shaw admired the play, too, which was first directed by Harley Granville Barker for his wife, Lillah McCarthy, whose performance as Nan was one of her signature roles. The play was often revived, but has not been seen since 1943.
Auriol Smith’s efficient production makes you wonder why on earth not. The setting is a small tenant farm in a village on the river Severn, where Nan Hardwick lives with her uncle and his wife; her father was hanged for stealing a sheep last Christmas. Nan is squeezed on all sides by a sense of social injustice, the envy of others, and fundamentalist religious beliefs, as the community jostles in and around the kitchen before, during and after a dancing party, with unwise romantic affiliations considered and deep-rooted enmities flaunted.
The role of Nan is a considerable challenge which Katie McGuinness meets with great aplomb and reserves of fierce determination. Her scenes with her cousin Jenny Pargetter (Amy Neilson Smith) and the shiftily defensive Dick Gurvil (Edward Bennett) are played with rippling assurance, and the party mood is shockingly disrupted with a vengeful knifing, as if a tragedy by Lorca had invaded John Clare’s rural provincial landscape. Other villagers include James Greene’s benign old parson and Trevor Martin’s gravelly-voiced, gnarled, violin-playing Gaffer Pearce in a rustic smock.
Masefield, who was born in Herefordshire in 1878 and only died in 1967, was Poet Laureate and an all-round literary figure, best known these days for his Salt-Water Ballads (“I must go down to the seas today”) and his children’s story, The Box of Delights. Smith’s revival makes you wonder what else might be lurking overlooked in the locker; Nan has an almost exactly contemporary companion piece – both plays raise the issue of capital punishment -- in The Campden Wonder that might be worth a look.
Meanwhile, the Orange Tree continues to act as a corrective to some gaping holes in the National Theatre’s repertoire. The RSC has obviously given up entirely at looking adventurously through the back catalogue to produce plays that only they and the NT have the resources to produce. Having revived rare and deeply worthwhile pieces by Cicely Hamilton, John Galsworthy and now John Masefield, they next move on to short pieces by J M Barrie, Synge, Pinero and Shaw. They’re our pocket NT, a necessary tug boat to the gleaming big liner.