Honour

Joanna Murray-Smith
Royal National Theatre, Cottesloe
(2003)

The National has unearthed an absolute gem with this Australian play written in 1995. It is a touching tale of what happens when a man who has been married for 32 years decides to defy mortality.

They have done the playwright Joanna Murray-Smith proud with a cast to die for. They haven't stopped there, as they also have the ideal director for a small-scale play, Roger Michell, and a top designer and lighting designer, William Dudley and Rick Fisher respectively.

Corin Redgrave plays George, a journalist and TV interviewer in his early sixties. He is happily married to Honor, a superlative performance from Dame Eileen Atkins. She was a talented poet who has given up a chance to be a famous writer in order to support George's career and bring up their daughter Sophie. She bears no grudges and believes that her life has been fulfilled.

The play commences with George being interviewed for a book by Claudia, Catherine McCormack. She is a very attractive, bespectacled 28 year-old and is clearly in love with George's intellect.

As the questioning becomes more personal, something different begins to develop and soon the two are in love. Within a couple of days, George feels unable to continue living with Honor (or honour) and decamps to Claudia's flat.

This has a devastating effect both on the wife who loves him and almost immediately begins to crumble, and also on their daughter Sophie, played by Anna Maxwell Martin. Sophie finds the arrival of Claudia hard to take, not only because she is half her father's age but also the two of them were at university together only a few years before.

William Dudley's set consists of a square boarded area with almost no props. Whether it is his intention or not, this is similar in size and shape to a boxing ring and the various pairings often confront each other like boxers or alternatively, chase each other around the space.

The most interesting psychological element of the play is the way in which ones they are used to their new arrangements, everything falls into place. Claudia realises that she never loved George but just wanted his approbation for her work. In return it is pretty apparent that all the George is really after was a chance for a second youth.

The real surprise - to herself, if to no one else - is that after a few days, Honor is really happy and takes up her literary career with relish.

This play is not only well-written but also superbly directed by Roger Michell who ensures that pace is maintained by bleeding scenes into each other with one scene commencing while an actor from a previous scene is still on stage. It is also very well acted. In particular, Dame Eileen Atkins gives a performance that could well win awards by the end of the year. Corin Redgrave and Catherine McCormack are not far behind, the former giving a performance very reminiscent of that of Michael Gambon in David Hare's Skylight in the same auditorium.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher