J. M. Barrie’s rarely performed Dear Brutus grounds itself in Shakespearean drama. Both its title and its central character are taken directly from the bard and, much like Shakespeare, Barrie seeks to show resonant and universal truths about humanity. With a formulaic narrative involving a group of strangers on midsummer eve, Dear Brutus surprises in its weighty articulation of fate, will and loss.
Barrie’s world is characteristically a magic one. The master of the house Lob (another name for Puck and played by Robin Hooper) invites his guests, all of whom share the desire for a second chance, to take a walk in an enchanted wood. The magic in Jonathan O’Boyle‘s production is effectively but slightly scantily hinted through sound effects, dappled light, and a burst of foliage.
But, like in Peter Pan, the fantasy world is mainly a tool used to mine the depths of human psychology. Amidst the playful, melodramatic, even childlike atmosphere, appropriately pitched by O’Boyle and the cast, there is a jarring grief that cuts through the seemingly simplistic moral-of-the-story tone of the rest of the piece.
To get there one wades through a lovers’ triangle, an examination of integrity, and a portrait of true love, all of which are palatable but predictable. Performed with lighthearted fun, the characters are each smartly executed, some effervescent, others frenetic, but all suitably over the top. Edward Sayer in particular delivers as a hilariously moronic philanderer whose incorrigibly blind arrogance is maddening, perhaps because it feels so familiar.
And while Sayer rightly finds the fault lies within himself and not in his stars, Barrie also suggests that character is not defined entirely independently of its environment. Miles Richardson as Will Dearth shifts beautifully from morose husband and failed artist to a kind and caring father. When faced with the realization that his fate and his character are mutually constitutive and that he has lost something he never even had, Richardson performs a fine and moving performance of grief.
This loss is what you leave with, and it is a welcome complexity to an otherwise didactic story. The stars that sit above us are not so static, and might indeed change, perhaps because of our actions, or simply because of where we are when we look up at them.
Dear Brutus is on until 30 December 2017 at the Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.