This is only the second time Harley Granville Barker’s play has been performed with his intention of addressing gender politics, relationships and "The Sex Question", possibly persuading the 20-year old, that it was too frank to go public. Agnes Colander is woman seeking artistic independence but also a “marriage” that will allow her to realise that ambition. That she keeps on defining these ambitions in the context of a relationship with a man says more about the era in which this play was written than anything else: Agnes cannot operate in society without a man to fund her and, more importantly to give her social standing.
Trevor Nunn will have addressed the question of sex frequently in the 37 Shakespeare plays he has overseen (that's the full set) and here his direction ensures that the play moves purposefully and with convincing performances. But it cannot escape the limits of its original construction, confounding our modern expectations with social compromises that are archaic now. That said, Barker is pushing the boundaries and some scenes are positively shocking for a play written in 1900 and there is a sensibility that would find fuller expression with The Voysey Inheritance (1905), about financial immorality, and Waste (1907). Seemingly he abandoned the play over fears of censorship and audience disapproval and when he re-read it in 1929, he made a note on the manuscript that it was “very poor”.
The only known copy of the play was by Colin Chambers in the British Library, and the American playwright Richard Nelson to revise before Nunn debuted it in Bath last year. It still feels a little uneven but there are some stunning passages that make the jaw drop – Agnes is not just a blue stocking she’s a seeker after truth and self-actualisation many decades before any of that became a woman’s right.
|Naomi Frederick - all photographs from Robert Workman|
He has brought news of a telegram from Agnes’ estranged husband who wants her back. He is much older and their union was “arranged” but, stifled, she left to pursue her dream of being “more herself…”. But this dream has not worked, she is reduced to painting within the lines of expectation: producing the merely beautiful without saying anything… She is tempted to give it all up and return to the comforts of the rich man but, decides to follow her heart after Otto “proposes” – in his way, and the two move to France to love and to paint.
This is after a young man, Alexander Flint (Harry Lister Smith), who has been employed by her husband to keep a watch, also declares his love… he’s too young and too late, as Agnes is distracted by the thoughts of the splash of Otto’s paint and the firm line of his charcoal.
|Naomi Frederick and Sally Scott- all photographs from Robert Workman|
In the end Agnes must decide to break free on her own or to pin her hopes and talent onto the inconsistent attentions of Otto… cue a rather surprising denouement… ultimately it’s about The Sex Question and the play is rather coy on the answers as it had to be in 1900.
Frederick acts with fluidity and convinces as much as these lines will allow whilst Matthew Flynn gets a lot of the laughs as the freely-expressive Danish draughtsman. There’s good support too from Cindy-Jane Armbruster as Agnes’ long-suffering lady-servants, Lister-Smith as the wholesome Alexander and Sally Scott gives a buzzy cameo as expat Emmeline Majoribanks who is there to remind Agnes of social convention even when she enjoys breaking it by snogging Otto; perhaps “Emmeline” is there to contraindicate the importance of independent spirit?
A tip of the hat to Robert Jones’s stage design which has us right in the heart of things in both London and France; removed in space and time.
Agnes Colander runs at Jermyn Street until 16th March, tickets and further details all at the box office.