Although renowned for her novels, it’s not widely known that the Nobel Prize-winning Doris Lessing also wrote two plays early in her career. The Orange Tree now stage her debut, Each His Own Wilderness, for the first time in this country since it was given a single ‘performance without décor’ at the Royal Court in 1958. It’s a fascinating but flawed work that anticipates some of the political and sexual themes that she explored much more successfully in her fictional masterpiece The Golden Notebook a few years later.
Having just finished two years of National Service, Tony returns home to London to find that his free-thinking mother Myra is carrying on as before with her enthusiastic support of radical political campaigns and her less committed love affairs. His latest ‘uncle’, Sandy, is an ambitious young man the same age as Tony, whose own mother is one of Myra’s fellow activists, Milly. More complications ensue when Myra’s ex, Philip, turns up with his young bride to be, Rosemary, while veteran Labour Party man, Mike, looks on sadly at the woman he has long loved unrequitedly.
Lessing gives an ambivalent account of this group of middle-class socialists who want to save the world but mess up their own domestic lives. She herself had been a communist when younger and took part in CND demonstrations against the H-bomb in the late 1950s, but as an outsider who was never really comfortable being part of a movement she became more sceptical. Here she reveals the inter-generational rift between the older who became radicalised in the turbulent 1930s and the younger growing up after the war who don’t see any great causes to espouse in Macmillan’s consumer boom where most people had ‘never had it so good’.
The main focus is on the Freudian relationship between Myra and Tony, who Hamlet-like says somewhat portentously, “I’ve suddenly understood what my tragedy is. I was born out of time.” He is an angry young man with some misogynist attitudes, like Jimmy Porter the anti-hero of Look Back in Anger (staged at the Court two years earlier), but the insecure Tony rebels against the left-wing, promiscuous lifestyle of his mother, who berates him as a ‘damned petit bourgeois’ while acknowledging that ‘our children are our own fault’. Unlike John Osborne, who seems to identify with his protagonist, Lessing’s sympathies seem divided.
The play’s strong female characters give it a proto-feminist quality, though a number of the roles are underwritten and not all the relationships are convincingly realised. Paul Miller’s sensitive direction maintains our interest in this conflict of ideas and personalities, despite some stilted dialogue, while Tom Roger’s design featuring vintage furniture and appliances evokes the period nicely.
Joel MacCormack conveys Tony’s emotional confusion well despite a strangely camp manner, and Clare Holman captures Myra’s careless idealism with sprightly charm. Suzannah Harker’s forthright, northern-accented Milly contrasts with her deferential, public school educated, son Sandy played by Josh Taylor. John Lightbody’s manipulative Philip has given up politics for business, Rosie Holden is his timidly conventional fiancée Rosemary and Roger Ringrose the kind-hearted but lovelorn Mike, in a play that explores the blurred line between the personal and the political.