A new production of George Bernard Shaw's classic 1920 tragi-comedy, Heartbreak House, continues the summer season at the Chichester Festival, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the playwright's death. Shaw's inspiration for this play was his friend, Virginia Woolfe, who he met at a country house in Sussex and fell in love with. The failure of Shaw's real-life romance no doubt informs the somewhat depressing - though bitingly funny - nature of his stage account.
The house, situated on the Sussex Downs, is the focal point of the action. Owned by a retired captain who yearns for his bygone sea-faring days and run by his daughters, at first glance, the house looks normal enough, but its inhabitants are far from normal. As Act One unfolds, the place quickly fills up with a mixture of eccentric people.
Shaw apparently wanted the characters to represent English society - which makes you wonder, if society is like this, shouldn't we all be worried? Captain Shotover, for instance, only acknowledges his family when the fancy takes him, one daughter prefers horses to people and the other flirts with men in front of her husband who doesn't seem to mind one bit (as well he shouldn't since he freely reciprocates by flirting with women). Even the burglar doesn't behave like a typical burglar.
Set designer John Gunter's house is a nautical treat, in homage to the Captain's past and his salt-aired demeanour. The main room resembles a ship's quarters with floor decking and a gangplank leading from it out into the garden. A blindfolded figurehead occupies the front of the stage, its arms outstretched. The message being that, though everyone is welcomed at Heartbreak House, they enter blind to the truth their heartbreak will bring.
Under Christopher Morahan's direction, the quality of the acting is superb throughout - much as you'd expect from such a distinguished collection of actors. Veteran Joss Ackland is wonderfully gruff as Captain Shotover and is supported by a superb ensemble including Christopher Benjamin, Anna Carteret and Clare Higgins. I'd love to see this group team up again for future productions.
A word of warning, though. If you're concerned about the precariousness of your own love life, or have trouble sitting still for long periods, this is probably not the play for you. It's a black view of relationships, certainly, and - at two hours and 40 minutes - that's a lot of blackness.
Heartbreak House continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 12 August 2000.