I’ve always enjoyed George Bernard Shaw’s plays, and this revival of The Philanderer, performed at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, is no exception. It explores the themes of love and marriage in a way that is in one sense of its time, and in another surprisingly modern. This long production – three hours including two intervals – doesn’t really seem that long at all (and yes, the set changes mean that it does need both of those intervals).
We first meet the “philanderer” of the title, Leonard Charteris, as he canoodles on the sofa with his latest love, the widow Grace Tranfield. Things are complicated, however, with the arrival of his former flame Julia Craven, and not long after both Julia’s father and Grace’s turn up, who just happen to be long-lost friends.
Trying to extricate himself from Julia, Leonard attempts to matchmake between her and the shy Dr Paramore, but it doesn’t seem like he will ever be able to get away from the woman he seems to both love and hate.
Shaw’s play is an interesting commentary on the “new woman”, Julia declaring herself as one who does not wish to marry but hopes to pursue freedom in her love affairs: a fact somewhat taken advantage of by Leonard. It is also a commentary on gender identity, with the Ibsen Club in which Act 2 takes place an institution which only takes men who are not “manly” and women who are not “womanly”. This is exemplified by Julia’s younger sister, who wears suits and refers to Leonard as “old chap”.
Rupert Young is appropriately hipster as Leonard, while Dorothea Myer-Bennett is superb as the hysterical but ultimately calculating Julia. I also liked Christopher Staines as the doctor who is dismayed to learn that the illness he discovered and to which he gave his name might not actually exist, not withstanding the positive news this might be for his patient, Julia’s father.
The play is another example of the Orange Tree doing what it does best: revivals of almost forgotten plays of the twentieth century.