Life After George

Hannie Rayson

Duchess

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

For anyone who remembers Malcolm Bradbury's History Man, Professor Peter George will seem familiar. The (anti-) hero of this award-winning Australian play is something of a reincarnation of that archetypal radical 70s academic. As the playwright says of him at the start, this is "the joyride of your life".

This play seems to have a great deal going for it. It is generally well acted with excellent performances in particular from Stephen Dillane as the Professor and from Shakespearean actress Joanne Pearce as his Germaine Greer-like second wife, Lindsay.

Within a set that starts as a world turned silver like the result of a cheapskate Midas touch, we are introduced to Professor Peter George, his three wives and daughter. Almost immediately, as the eulogies ring out, we see him riding heavenwards on a (silver) coffin with a beautiful backdrop. Peter J Davison's design is simple but very attractive. It is perhaps significant that vibrant colours always stay on the periphery.

The wives quite nicely delineate the different sides to the Australian History Man. His first, played by Cheryl Campbell, is an artist who through idealism gives up her career to follow her husband to Australia. They are first seen together during the Evenements in Paris in 1968. This is George at the height of his radicalism.

The best character acting then comes out as George meets the gushing, enthusiastic 21 year old Lindsay. Pearce, wearing patched denim hotpants, is fully convincing in this role. She soon usurps her predecessor and becomes wife number two. She matures into a cold calculating professor as happy in fund-raising and management as concentrating on academic issues. This leads to friction with her idealistic and greatly loved husband. It also gives Rayson the chance to explore the art v. money debate that rages in Universities around the world.

Eventually it all becomes too much and George succumbs to the charms of a woman over 25 years his junior who is reputed to have great intellectual depth. The one weakness of the play is that pretty Poppy seems to be a bimbo, not the genius of her generation.

Throw into the pot a couple of unfulfilled and unhappy children from the first marriage and you have the recipe for a very funny, occasionally touching portrait of a man who struggles with his nature as he grows older. He cannot resist his instincts for womanising and acting as a Victorian father despite otherwise impeccable liberal credentials.

Under Michael Blakemore's sensitive direction, the cast realise their characters well and their body language adds a great deal towards a deeper understanding of the underlying stresses of life with as well as after George. Blakemore has a great challenge in getting timing right as the filmic short scenes often bleed into each other and characters rush on and off stage often gaining or losing decades along the way. He is generally successful in achieving this.

Hannie Rayson is a real find for English audiences. She writes well and combines intellectual debate with good analysis of what makes human beings tick. It is rare to see Australian plays on the London stage but on this showing we are the losers and it is to be hoped that more will follow. This may also enable more English actors to perfect Australian accents. Joanne Pearce got it right but three others tried hard but failed.