Last seen in Richard Eyre’s 1989 intimate “traverse” staging in the NT Cottesloe, Harley Granville Barker’s magnificent drama can be seen as a founding document of both the National and the Royal Court.
Peter Gill’s production in the NT Lyttelton has a Victorian sweep – there is indeed a street-cleaner on the margins – and a cunning attention to detail (and some annoying newsreel and musical snippets on tape between acts), as the Voysey family is exposed as living on the back of deep-seated fraud and corruption.
Edward (Dominic West) has discovered that his solicitor father (Julian Glover) has been systematically disposing of his clients’ bonds and trust funds in his own account. An opening clash of moral outrage and stubborn justification sets out the challenge: will Edward expose the fraud and declare the family bankrupt?
Switching between the office in Lincoln’s Inn and the family seat in Chislehurst – the handsome designs and costumes are by Alison Chitty – the drama unravels through Edward’s process of deliberation. The harder decision would be to maintain a reputation for honesty while manipulating the funds until all debts are paid.
One commentator has pointed out that the worm in the Voysey bud is “first cousin” to the worm in Enron’s. A sustained conspiracy to defraud clients and investors is both a mark of big business and of such recent operators as Robert Maxwell with his pension funds and Nick Leeson with his audacious rip-offs at Barings Bank.
The greatness of the play lies in the way Granville Barker takes this theme into the tainted real lives of the beneficiaries – Edward’s brothers, his mother (a smiling bird-like creature in Doreen Mantle’s portrait of someone who knew about it all along and played “deaf”) and spinsterish sister (Lucy Briers). And we hit pay dirt when a close family friend, played with spaniel-like devotion by John Nettleton, withdraws his securities and is ruined.
From Julian Glover’s imposing, non-apologetic family titan to Nancy Carroll’s beautifully elegant and determined fiancée, the stage is full of riveting performances. Voysey’s brothers are more than mere mouthpieces representing church, army and the artistic life (failed) in the work of tremulous Mark Tandy, the hilariously booming and bullying Andrew Woodall and the quivering, idealistic Martin Hutson.
Max Beerbohm hailed the third act revelation to the family after old Voysey’s funeral as “the high point of English ironic comedy” and Gill’s cast is frozen in shocked profile, an indelible image of English society rocking onto the back foot. One hundred years after its premiere at the Court, Granville Barker’s classic remains a play for today with high style and true vengeance.