Honour | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft - Wendy Hughes. Photo - Brett Boardman

Writer George and his wife, the eponymous Honour, are a couple in their late middle-age who seem for all the world to be happy, contented, and still very much in love after three decades of marriage. It comes therefore as a considerable shock when George declares, seemingly out of the blue, that he is unhappy and is leaving his wife, life and history to take up with Claudia, an ambitious, beautiful writer in her late 20s who had been recently interviewing him about his career. Honour simply can’t believe it, while their sensitive daughter Sophie, herself a contemporary of Claudia’s at University, is deeply distressed and profoundly angry at her father for undermining the values with which she had been raised. And as for Claudia herself, she is a tough nut to crack, her flinty, self-centred outlook on life contrasting dramatically with each of the family members with whom she interacts throughout the story.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s play is, at its core, a discussion of fidelity and personal happiness which questions fundamental notions of interpersonal duty and the nature of romantic love. The play grapples, just as its characters do, with issues of whether love is something that can evolve and sustain itself beyond the initial excitement of sexual passion, asking whether routines are comforting or stifling, and examining the role of memory and history in a relationship. It posits the question as to whether love for a partner can truly be unconditional or if it is ultimately a selfish state of mind, contingent only to how it makes oneself feel. Gender plays an important role as well, of course, as the narrative depicts the familiar scenario of an older man leaving his family for a younger woman, raising questions of sacrifice and equality in a partnership. Honour, previously a promising author herself, is faced with the question of whether she “sacrificed” a career to support George and be a mother to Sophie, the answer to which Claudia herself brashly suggests is an uncomplicated “yes”.

The play gives us no easy answers, although perhaps inevitably it does consistently appear to take Honour’s side as the wounded party, never giving her any appreciably negative characteristics to in any way justify George’s abandonment of her. That said, however, the play is far from one-sided, and goes to great lengths to explore each participant as a multidimensional character. Whatever degree of sympathy one may feel for the George and Claudia as the “betrayers” of the story is a fragile thing, and in the final result rests as much on the performances of this production’s fine cast as it does on Murray-Smith’s probing characterisation.

It is a rare actor who can be so equally accomplished in broad comedy and straight drama, but William Zappa is without doubt one of our great stage actors, and although I struggle to think if I’ve ever seen him deliver a poor performance, this was a highpoint in his dramatic work of recent memory. Investing the unsympathetic role of George with a moving believability, Zappa’s handling of this problematic part was virtually flawless in execution. Even if one fails to truly empathise with George or accept his self-justifications, Zappa never lets us doubt the character’s authenticity or fail to understand his flawed humanity.

A tougher task confronts Paula Arundell in attempting to evoke similar sympathy for Claudia, a fairly unlikable character who is not so much a seductress as a mercenary opportunist, seemingly lacking any feelings other than intellectual and sexual overconfidence, while also similarly devoid of any sense of personal responsibility for how her actions harm others. Given the character’s age relative to when the play was written, she seems very much to be a portrait of the cynical selfishness of Generation X, or at any rate the often amoral insularity of youth in general. In some respects Claudia goes through the most character development, but the character’s belated capacity to grow a conscience may seem a little forced to some. Arundell is frequently cast in these vaguely unsettling roles of sexy yet damaged (and damaging) women, something she does very well, of course, but one can’t help but wonder if she has a nice character in her repertoire waiting to get out! She delivers a very strong performance to be sure, although much of the chemistry she shared with Zappa many years ago in the title roles of Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra seems absent here, while the material mitigates her efforts to imbue the character with much approachability.

Yael Stone has no such problem as Sophie, easily the most straightforward character in the play, yet nevertheless one with unexpected depths. Her interactions with each of her three co-stars are beautifully differentiated as to the subtleties of each quite different relationship, but the centrepiece is a poignantly inarticulate speech in which the character’s insecurities and pain tumble forth in an all-too credible avalanche of emotion. Stone does a masterful job of imbuing the character with an aching sense of loss and crisis, excelling in the difficult task of making dialogue written to be intentionally faltering sound naturalistic and spontaneous rather than rehearsed or stilted. Stone’s impressive performance as a whole culminates in this scene as the production’s crowning achievement.

Although blessed with some great one-liners and performed by the legendary Wendy Hughes, Honour seems fairly passive despite eliciting the most uncomplicated sympathy, being in of herself the least engaging of the quartet. Is this partly Murray-Smith’s point, that while adulterous men run off to have “exciting” new lives, the women who get left behind are relegated to the role of victim, cast-off and left without a sense of independent identity? Likely so, but one couldn’t help but wish that Hughes’ notionally feisty title role had somehow been drawn out into a more compelling part.

This is a highly effective show, but one that rests very much on its material and powerful ensemble rather than direction and production design which are, frankly, rather pedestrian. One element that misfires badly is the set - vast, empty and almost featureless in its architectural abstraction. This presumably had the purpose of representing the increasing emotional distance between the characters and their feelings of isolation, but in what is supposed to be an intimate character drama this instead had the effect of merely dwarfing the actors, something for which Lee Lewis’ unimaginative direction seemed unable to compensate. This is as much an inherent problem of mismatching a production design (and perhaps the play itself) with its performance space, being the second show in as many months that feels awkwardly ill-suited for the vast letterbox stage of the Opera House’s Drama Theatre.

For those seeking thrills, high melodrama or theatrical shock tactics, Honour will not be your cup of tea. But for those with the patience for rich, thought-provoking drama, this engrossing study of moral frailty and emotional turmoil will be tremendously rewarding, brought vibrantly to life by some truly excellent performances.

Sydney Theatre Company and Allens Arthur Robinson present
by Joanna Murray-Smith

Director: Lee Lewis

Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 17 April - 23 May, 2010
Tickets: $30 - $85 (transaction fees may apply)
Boookings: 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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