|Lucy Bell as Honor and Huw Higginson as George
in Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney 2021
Photos by Prudence Upton
Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, April 23 – June 5 2021
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night April 28
Director – Kate Champion
Set & Costume Designer – Simone Romaniuk; Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper;
Composer & Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson
Honor – Lucy Bell
George – Huw Higginson
Claudia – Ayeesha Ash
Sophie – Poppy Lynch
Since I last saw this play ten years ago it is an honour today – no superficial wordplay intended – to see how good a writer Joanna Murray-Smith was and still is. She has done some re-writing on Honour, thanking Ensemble Theatre for inviting her to attend rehearsals: “Honour 2.0: tinkering with a success” by Kelly Burke
[ https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/apr/17/joanna-murray-smith-on-fixing-her-best-known-play-honour-you-have-to-make-a-judgment-call ]
The writing is quite extraordinary, beginning with the opening solo speech by George. He almost seems to be aware of an audience – really talking to and sometimes at himself – which is funny even while we sense a feeling of his being on the edge, of what neither we nor he can yet understand. At the end, can we say we enjoyed a romantic comedy? Yes definitely…but…but. But are you sure?
Murray-Smith’s words are just so good for acting. Little words like ‘but’ or phrases like ‘you’re leaving me’ may be said many times over, even in quick succession, always with a new turn of the head, a different glance, a precise change in tone of voice, an unexpected angle of an eyebrow. Of course all four of these actors are experts, and Kate Champion has always been so skilled at making words dance since the days of her own dance theatre company, Force Majeure. Joanna Murray-Smith provides the energy and motivation in the way her words and gaps between words open up her characters’ feelings.
See this play and be prepared to find yourself surprised by your own feelings as you question yourself about yourself. And laugh at yourself laughing. Comedy, yes – but not romantic in any conventional sense.
In the past ten years, of course, sexual politics have galloped apace, so the arguments from the three women about George’s behaviour now have a new piquancy. George, as a committed journalist, starts from the position that writing the truth wins, over ‘the heart’. To myself I translated this as ‘Truth Trumps Heart’, and fell into thinking about the mess of deliberately manipulated ‘fake news’ from the recently defeated US president, as well as the mishandling of the men in our so-called egalitarian parliament who take themselves off on leave on full pay for empathy training, or with a doctor’s certificate because of their stress when accused of rape.
In her play, which I also found myself calling ‘Honour thy Mother’, Murray-Smith, through the ways in which each of the women – Honor, Claudia and Sophie – develop a clear understanding of their positions as wife/mother, as lover and as daughter, ironically shows how truth does ‘win over’ the heart. Enduring love means supporting while knowing, accepting and respecting your own and your partner’s good and not so good points.
Honor learns that she does love George, despite everything, as she always had for the 32 years of their marriage; Claudia, as time and her meetings with Honor and Sophie go on, realises that she doesn’t love George after all, and that he doesn’t really love her; Sophie grows up in her appreciation of her parents and is beginning to understand what her independence means.
And at the end, I think, George knows he must be truthful with himself and honour Honor – it’s still all mysterious to him, but he knows now in his heart it’s the right way to go. As a mere male myself, I identified with him.
Honour is fascinating, too, from another angle. It’s written by a writer writing about being a writer. Each character is a different kind of writer. Honor is a poet; George is a journalist; Claudia is a feature writer working on a project about George’s career; and Sophie hopes to become a writer, perhaps like Claudia. So here I am, a reviewer writing about this playwright. For me, then, there is a special kind of buzz in this experience. Joanna Murray-Smith stands out as a creative artist.
To deliberately misquote that other great playwright, William Shakespeare, Joanna Murray-Smith is an honourable woman, whose writing has integrity. The actors had the same understanding in their performances. The audience on opening night responded in kind. We were honoured to be in her presence.
|Huw Higginson (George) and Ayeesha Ash (Claudia)
|Ayeesha Ash (Claudia) and Lucy Bell (Honor)
|Poppy Lynch (Sophie) and Lucy Bell (Honor)
|Huw Higginson (George) and Poppy Lynch (Sophie)
Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney
Photos: Prudence Upton