Review: Agnes Colander

4 star rating
A lost work from Harley Granville Barker gets a stylish production, hailing a playwright ahead of his time in tackling the struggles of women, and still proving amply relevant.
Agnes Colander at Jermyn Street Theatre

Image: Jermyn Street Theatre



Closes here: Saturday 16 March 2019

Author:
Harley Granville Barker, revised by Richard Nelson

Composer:
Steve Edis

Director:
Trevor Nunn

Cast:

Naomi Frederick as Agnes Colander

Sally Scott as Emmeline Majoribanks

Matthew Flynn as Otto Kjoge

Harry Lister-Smith - Alexander Flint

Cindy-Jane Armbruster - as Martha/ Suzon


Synopsis


Three years after leaving her unfaithful husband and striking out as an artist, Agnes receives his letter ordering her home.


But Agnes married young; her innocence has gone and her ambition is growing.


Fleeing to France to find a new future, Agnes is pursued by the besotted Alec and worldly-wise Otho.


Beset on all sides, can Agnes seize the chance to shape her own life?


Background


Hailed as a long-lost masterpiece, Harley Granville Barker's witty and compelling exploration of love, sexual attraction and independence was written in 1900 and unearthed in the British Library a century later.


Following an acclaimed run at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, Trevor Nunn's world premiere production arrives in London for five weeks only.


Harley Granville Barker is a giant of Edwardian theatre and the first modern British theatre director.


His plays, including Waste and The Voysey Inheritance, are regularly revived.


Richard Nelson is a multi award-winning playwright and librettist.


He is an honorary associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company and recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Trevor Nunn returns to Jermyn Street Theatre following Samuel Beckett's All That Fall, which transferred to the West End and off-Broadway.


He is a former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.


On Monday 18th February there will be a Q & A immediately after the performance - all ticket holders welcome.


ActDrop reviews


Peter Brown

Performance date: Friday 15 February 2019
Review star rating image

In its 25th anniversary year of theatre making, Jermyn Street Theatre has orchestrated something of a double coup with this production.


First, this long-lost play, written in 1900 and consigned to some dust-ridden shelves for a century or so before being rediscovered, has been hailed as a "masterpiece" by the multitalented actor, playwright and director, Harley Granville Barker - recognised by many in the theatrical world as the inventor of the modern theatre (to borrow a noteworthy phrase from Jermyn Street's artistic director, Tom Littler).


On the second count, it's directed by Trevor Nunn, former artistic director of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose credit in this production is probably sufficient on its own to have many flocking to the box office.


And his astutely stylish production doesn't disappoint in any way, though it's real strength - and compelling dramatic interest - lies with the subject matter the playwright chose to focus on, turning out to be bold, brave, well ahead of its time and still surprisingly and powerfully relevant.


In part at least, that may well have accounted for its demise to the gloomy confines of the British Library for a century.


Here subtitled "An Attempt at Life", and revised by Richard Nelson, Agnes Colander is the story of a woman who wants more from life than simply being the chattel-like possession of a husband.

Naomi Frederick as Agnes Colander - photo by Robert Workman

Naomi Frederick as Agnes Colander - photo by Robert Workman


Married at the tender age of 17 to an older man, that she liked rather than loved, we first meet Agnes in her artist's studio pensively brooding and unable to develop the canvas she is working on.


When fellow artist Otto fetches-up, he instantly recognises that Agnes is not herself and discovers that her estranged husband has written asking her to return to him.


That gives Otto the chance to seduce Agnes and whisk her off to France where the better light, food, drink and female company offer Otto an ideal existence.


But Agnes has another suitor - the younger and plainly naive Alexander - who follows Agnes to foreign shores like a lap-dog and whose arrival precipitates decisive action.


Men in this play don't exactly come up smelling of roses, with male characters (including Agnes's unseen husband) shown to be self-serving - even the inexperienced, if romantic, Alexander.


Matthew Flynn's well-described Otto seems liberal enough at first, but soon shows his true colours when we find him merely adding Agnes to the ingredients of his daily routine and not above giving her a violent blow when he's not getting his own way.


There's plenty to admire in Trevor Nunn's thoughtfully meticulous production.


Robert Jones's highly effective design has room for an enormous seascape which dominates proceedings in the second act, pointing to beckoning freedom as well as danger.


Naomi Frederick provides a highly compelling, sometimes understated, performance as Agnes, struggling to find the necessary determination and strength to set her own path in life.


There's also captivating work from Sally Scott as widowed Emmeline, who seems to decry immorality but nonetheless opportunistically accepts Otto's surreptitious advances.


Barely in his twenties when he wrote Agnes Colander, Harley Granville Barker nonetheless had the essential confidence and dramatic expertise to raise both the "sex question" and highlight women's struggles to overcome male domination of the times.


Though there's considerable relevance in the main issue, the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory since Agnes doesn't actually break free of men completely.


But the high production values and laudable performances certainly make for a great evening's theatre.



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