Michael Portillo - Ideal home show

Theatre - The perfect wife proves a little too long-suffering to be lifelike, writes Michael Portill

A hard-hitting play that spares no blushes, Honour, by the Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, charts the collapse of a long-standing marriage. A husband, George (Martin Jarvis), succumbs to the predatory advances of a younger woman, observed by his abandoned wife, Honor (Diana Rigg), the heroine of the piece.

George is an intellectual, a successful and much-lauded man of letters. The play opens with him trying to summarise his career for the benefit of a young writer, Claudia (Natascha McElhone), who is interviewing him for a book about important figures of the age. George's attempts to encapsulate his own greatness are as inarticulate as they are pompous. In the first moments of the performance we see him laid bare. He is a self-satisfied ass. Why the intelligent and beautiful Claudia should want to seduce him is, at least at first, inexplicable.

The explanation comes later. That Claudia is ambitious is evident from the start. But it takes us time to understand that she derives pleasure from destruction. She enjoys power, and that includes knowing that George is so besotted that he could not bear to be parted from her. At which point you have to wonder how George, for all Claudia's youth and good looks, could be such a klutz.

Honor is pure nobility. She bears George's clumsy and inarticulate announcement that he is leaving her and that he no longer "wants a wife" with tremendous dignity. Later, in conversation with their daughter Sophie, she tries to explain and even justify George's behaviour. When talking to Claudia she is crushing but never catty. When she sees George again she treats him gently, regarding him as a sick man who needs psychiatric help. Finally, she gets a life, as George's goes into meltdown.

Sophie, meanwhile, is appalled by her father. She is angered by the disintegration of her parents' partnership, once a certainty that made her feel safe. The idea of George, in her eyes an old man, having sex with her near-contemporary revolts her. Yet she admits to envying Claudia her self-confidence and love life.

When they become lovers, George criticises Claudia's writing, complaining that she treats her subjects too directly, and in too obvious a way. As should be clear from my review so far, that is exactly the charge that can be made against Murray-Smith's work, including both Honor's name and Sophie's Oedipal confusions. Honor is all good, George a fool, Claudia a bitch and Sophie mixed up. Such two-dimensional characterisation does not help the author to say anything original on a subject that is far from new.

The play's most interesting aspect is its feminist message. Before she starts the affair, Claudia makes Honor recognise for the first time that she has sacrificed her career for George's. Despite having published a well-received volume of poetry, Honor abandoned her writing to be a wife and mother. Both Claudia and Sophie swear that they will never give things up for men. They will avoid making themselves vulnerable in that way.

Claudia asserts that she is doing Honor a favour by rectifying the older woman's sacrifices. The claim sounds outrageous, but George's betrayal lifts the scales from his wife's eyes, and she begins to live for herself after many years of self-denial.

Murray-Smith's four stereotypes do not make life easy for the actors. Martin Jarvis does his best as George, but there are limits to what can be achieved while metaphorically wearing the dunce's cap reserved for the male role throughout the play. He certainly succeeds in looking idiotic, and the love scenes with Claudia are particularly painful.

Natascha McElhone does ambition well. Later in the play her character softens and begins to babble. It is a less convincing piece of writing than George's part and, not surprisingly, the role is played with a less-than-sure touch by McElhone. Georgina Rich, too, begins very strongly as the outraged daughter, but Sophie's descent into incoherent introspection also proves a challenge for the young actor.

It is no easier for Rigg to be pure heroine than it is for Jarvis to be unalloyed dolt. All that virtue and dignity seem to weigh on her shoulders. She is a fine actor and she does it well, but the lack of variety and colour must weary her as much as it does the audience. Honor gets great lines and Rigg delivers them with wonderful crispness. When Claudia begins to reflect on whether she really loves George, Honor is magnificent: "Don't make me watch you grow up." When George thinks he is being generous in offering to divide their wealth into equal parts, she counters: "You take half my misery and I'll take half your new-found joy." It is a prophetic remark.

That Rigg, who is deservedly a national institution, plays the epitome of feminine virtue is good box-office stuff. But might she not have been better still in a more complex role?

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