Monday, July 13, 2015

Ladies in Lavender by Shaun McKenna

Ladies in Lavender by Shaun McKenna, adapted from the screenplay by Charles Dance, based on the short story by William J Locke.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, directed by Nicole Buffoni; designed by Anna Gardiner; wardrobe by Margaret Gill; lighting by Nicholas Higgins; sound by Daryl Wallis.  At Ensemble Theatre July 3 – August 15, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 11

This is a beautifully done production of what has turned out, for me at least, to be an intriguing play, of a movie, of a short story.

The sound of Arthur Askey on the ‘wireless’ (unfortunately not an original His Master’s Voice, but still...)  took me back to my very early English childhood; in fact a year or three earlier, since I was born in 1941.  His jokes, and singing, were always awful but still sort-of funny, in a non-PC kind of way.

On the other hand, the live violin playing by Benjamin Hoetjes as Andrea Marowski was anything but awful: entirely professional, especially compared to the deliberately rank-amateur playing by Daniel Mitchell as Dr Mead.

As the spinster sisters Widdington, Penny Cook (Janet, the elder) and Sharon Flanagan (Ursula – and apparently never-been-kissed) established their almost as-if-married relationship within the time it took to fade the lights up, and immediately took off as the thunder rolled and the near-direct-hit lightning struck fear into us as much as into uncertain Ursula.  We were all brought to our good senses by the practical calm and good order maintained by Janet, of course.

Dorcas, as played by Gael Ballantyne, was a wonder to behold – the worst and best of English comedy servants; while Lisa Gormley’s Olga Danilov was exactly the kind of self-assured independent woman to keep Dr Mead firmly in his place – where he thoroughly deserved to be.

Finally the play was about the sadness, even through gentle laughter, of Ursula’s near-breakdown when the ‘Greek God’ Andrea leaves, without having time to explain to the sisters who rescued him and loved him, to be taken up by the violin maestro Boris Danilov, Olga’s brother, to begin a magnificent musical career.

To some it might seem weird that, despite my 74 years, I had never heard of Ladies in Lavender and knew nothing of the play, the film or the story before Saturday.  It was odd, then, that though the production was excellent in every way, from the finesse of the acting to the sisters’ father’s neck-to-knee swimming costume, I kept feeling there was something not quite right about the play.

When was it written, I wondered?  After World War II, looking back to just before the war broke out finally in 1939?  After all, Dr Mead seemed concerned that they might be entertaining spies in their remote Cornish fishing village, since Andrea, who was apparently Polish, spoke German to Olga, who was probably Russian.  Was the play, then, not essentially about Ursula and Janet’s rivalry for Andrea’s affections, but some kind of allegory about the beginning of the War.  Perhaps Andrea represented Poland who was about to be invaded by Germany (that man with the moustache was mentioned in disgust by Janet at one point).  Did Olga, speaking German, entice Andrea away, but would later turn on him as Russia did?  It all seemed so complicated!

Did it even go so far, perhaps, that it was really a play about the naivety of the English in failing to admit the danger of German invasion – the sisters’ kindness to the stranger on their shore might parallel the appeasement political process?  Ursula says something about whether there might be another war, and Janet, whose boyfriend was killed in World War I, replies that it was possible, though she hoped not.  And the women work out that Andrea was “so young”, and could barely have been born when Janet’s love was taken away.

So then I thought, aha!  This play is being presented now as part of the commemoration of World War I – a follow-up to the Ensemble’s recent The Anzac Project (reviewed on this blog April 9, 2015).

Yet times, dates and ages still seemed out of kilter.  How old are these sisters?  If they were teenagers falling in love in 1916 and now it is, say, 1938, Janet might now be about 40, at most 45.  On stage Penny Cook’s make-up appeared to me much older than that, and so did Sharon Flanagan’s.  More confusion – because her dominance and title as “Miss Widdington” suggested that Janet was the elder, yet Miss Ursula looked older rather than younger.  But then, as a mere male, my judgement could not be trusted on such matters.  So how could I sort this all out?

The World Wide Web came galloping to the rescue.  There I found not only the 2004 movie starring Judi Dench as Ursula, Maggie Smith as Janet and Miriam Margolyes as Dorcas, but also the original short story.  Now I know that in some ways Shaun McKenna’s play is better than the movie because it is more in tune with William John Locke’s original intention.

The movie was, of course, post-World War II and made it very clear from background radio sound effects that Germany was already in the process of making lebensraum outside its borders, and implying that Poland was next.  This explains Andrea being on a ship to America to escape ahead of the Nazi invasion, having been washed off the deck in the opening storm, naively trying to find a boatman to take him to New York, and accepting Olga’s offer to go to London to meet her famous brother.

But what a surprise when I found that the short story, in which the title Ladies in Lavender is explained, was published by Locke in a collection of his stories called Far-Away Stories – in 1919, and that Ladies in Lavender was first published in 1908!

Intriguing indeed!  Locke himself died in 1930 at the age of 67, after a long career publishing novels, short stories and plays.  In effect he was a contemporary of my favourite, and much more famous playwright, George Bernard Shaw.

Locke wrote Ladies in Lavender as a rather whimsical story of exciting goings on in an English village, where “To that little stone weatherbeaten house their father, the white-whiskered gentleman of the portrait, had brought them [his daughters] quite young when he had retired from the navy with a pension and a grievance – an ungrateful country had not made him an admiral – and there, after his death, they had continued to lead their remote and gentle lives, untouched by the happenings of the great world.”

Even so “It was by no means the first dead man cast up by the waves that they had stumbled upon during their long sojourn on this wild coast, where wrecks and founderings and loss of men’s lives at sea were commonplace happenings.  They were dealing with the sadly familiar....”  Locke does not write with the wit of Bernard Shaw, but in this story writes with a touch of another contemporary, the Irish playwright J M Synge.  Synge’s final play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, was unfinished when he died at the age of only 37 in 1909, and was completed by W B Yeats and Molly Allgood for its first performance at the Abbey Theatre in 1910.

Locke’s story where  “indeed there lay sprawling anyhow in catlike grace beneath them the most romantic figure of a youth that the sight of maiden ladies ever rested on” with his “long black hair, a perfectly chiselled face, a preposterously feminine mouth which, partly open, showed white young teeth, and the most delicate, long-fingered hands in the world” brings something of the mythic sensibility surrounding the power of the sea to raise the dead, and take life away.  Locke may keep a certain humorous eye on his maiden ladies, quite unlike Synge’s chilling quality, but the rescue and inevitable loss of Miss Ursula’s “young Greek god” places Locke in the writing culture of his time.

Though Charles Dance was happy to set this story firmly into “the happenings of the great world”, and thereby lost in his film the faery nature which is the key to Locke’s original, fortunately Shaun McKenna (just the right Irish name, surely) understood Locke’s intention when he added in the Hans Christian Andersen story of The Little Mermaid, and made it so significant in the relationship between Ursula Widdington and Andrea Marowsky.

The play, then, though a little distracted by Arthur Askey and Herr Hitler, is better than the film.  I even felt that the performances of Penny Cook and Sharon Flanagan were more satisfactory than those of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench – not because they are better actors but because the playscript gave them more emotional quality to work with than the film screenplay.

The play also ends better than the film.

The movie ends with Janet and Ursula accepting the situation after the concert in London as Andrea is carted off to talk to Sir Charles Mackerras.  They walk away from us down a long cold corridor, and then are walking on the beach where the Greek god first appeared. 

The play ends, after Ursula’s breakdown at the loss of Andrea, with her more than acceptance – indeed, a new understanding – as Andrea appears like a mirage playing his violin.  This staging is more poetic in impact than showing the two of them at the concert in London at the end of the film, while Dorcas has the radio on at their house for the villagers to listen to hear him play.

Though Locke can never match the strength of Synge’s writing:  
Deirdre (in a high and quiet tone) – I have put away sorrow like a shoe that is worn out and muddy, for it is I have had a life that will be envied by great companies....It was sorrows were foretold, but great joys were my share always; yet it is a cold place I must go to....
Ursula’s story ends:  “For all those years she had waited for the prince who never came; and he had come at last out of fairyland, cast up by the sea.  She had had with him her brief season of tremulous happiness.  If he had been carried on, against his will, by a strange woman into the unknown whence he had emerged, it was only the inevitable ending of such a fairytale.

“Thus wisdom came to her from sea and sky, and made her strong.  She smiled through her tears, and she, the weaker, went forth for the first time in her life to comfort and direct her sister.”

In updating Ladies in Lavender, the ethereal quality of the original story was lost, in the film especially, but McKenna’s playscript, performed on stage, captured more of Locke’s feeling for his two maiden ladies.  But never quite the feeling they had when they first realised Andrea had gone when “They were left alone unheeded in the dry lavender of their lives.”

And, by the way, William J Locke specifies that Miss Widdington was precisely 48 and her sister, Miss Ursula Widdington, three years younger.  “She could, therefore, smile indulgently at the impetuosity of youth”... but “as behoved one who has the charge of an orphaned younger sister, did not allow the sentimental to weaken the practical.”

Janet (Penny Cook) and Ursula (Sharon Flanagan)
As the lightning was about to strike

Andrea (Benjamin Hoetjes) and Ursula (Sharon Flanagan)
Ursula helps Andrea recover by reading The Little Mermaid and teaching him to read English words.

Dr Mead (Daniel Mitchell) shows off his "musicianship".

Andrea (Benjamin Hoetjes) displays his musicianship.

Olga Danilov (Lisa Gormley) overhears Andrea playing, and writes to her maestro brother.

Andrea offers his gratitude equally to Janet and Ursula
Penny Cook, Benjamin Hoetjes, Sharon Flanagan

Dorcas (Gael Ballantyne), Ursula (Sharon Flanagan), Janet (Penny Cook), Dr Mead (Daniel Mitchell)
Dr Mead is concerned about informing the authorities and the possibility of spies.

Ursula 'mothers' Andrea
Sharon Flanagan and Benjamin Hoetjes

Andrea is amazed to hear the positive response from Olga's brother, Boris Danilov.
Benjamin Hoetjes and Lisa Gormley

Dorcas puts Ursula to practical work.
Sharon Flanagan and Gael Ballantyne

Janet and Ursula "left alone unheeded in the dry lavender of their lives".
Penny Cook and Sharon Flanagan

All photos by Clare Hawley