The new production of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour that has opened at Wyndham’s, just three years after it originally received its British premiere in an entirely different staging and cast at the National, is now the third one I’ve seen, since I also saw its Broadway premiere in 1998 (in a different production again). And while comparisons are invidious, it’s also amazing how insidiously the play has been undermined by a staging that is altogether less eloquent and resonant, but also to do with just how fundamentally miscast three of its four actors are now, too.
The last time around, in the intimate surrounds of the Cottesloe -- where the audience were arranged on two sides, like eavesdroppers to its portrait of domestic upheaval and emotion that follows when a middle-aged husband suddenly walks out of a 32-year marriage after he falls for a 28-year-old woman who has come to interview him -- I was overwhelmed by this forensically observed triangle of a betrayer, the betrayed and the catalyst for it.
But while on that occasion it was acted with the raw, shocking immediacy of wrenching feeling and pain by a cast that included Eileen Atkins as the wounded wife, Corin Redgrave as the husband sending his life into freefall, and Catherine McCormack as the predatory younger woman, here there’s not only the distancing of the pros arch to contend with but also a fatal lack of authenticity to the performances, too.
Diana Rigg may be attempting to go the full distance by daring to appear less than her glamorous usual self with a shock of white-ish hair drawn in a middle-aged bob. But though she is still unparalleled at the bitter, acid put downs that her character lashes out with, she simply doesn’t do vulnerability, and fails to expose the raw nerve endings that are called for as the character comes to grips with the new reality she’s being confronted with.
As the straying husband, Martin Jarvis is too light to be convincing as a man prepared to put his life through the wringer and simply no match for Rigg’s life force; but then Natascha McElhone’s awkward temptress isn’t much of a competition for it, either. Though you can see the physical attraction, McElhone acts with such tentative, halting reactions that it’s difficult to believe that her character would have such power over any man. The play duly threatens to become phoney and unconvincing, instead of wise and wrenching.
The only performance that seems to resonate with an inner life below the surface that everyone else is playing here is recent RADA graduate Georgina Rich as the couple’s student daughter (played at the National by Anna Maxwell Martin). While a realistic book-lined study holds centrestage for most of the action to take place upon, the banks of empty chairs that expressionistically surround it epitomise director David Grindley’s muddled approach to the play: he seemingly wants it to have it both ways, as true-to-life drama and metaphor, too.