We live in a country divided. To Brexit or not to Brexit? Politicians out of touch with poor snowflakes. A cavernous abyss between the priorities of the young and old. An island drifting from mainland Europe.
Much is the same in the Edwardian Britain painted by George Bernard Shaw in Heartbreak House. The 1919 play is directed by Phil Willmott as part of the Union Theatre’s Essential Classics season, aiming to bring new relevance to classic plays in their reflection of our current times. What was once a Chekhov pastiche has now become a state of the nation comedy of manners that gently critiques wartime aristocracy. The play’s Britishness is emphasised by the use of music including Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory as we enter. But, as one character asks, “Is this England or is it a madhouse?”
Gathering in the titular house (gloriously realised by set designers Justin Williams and Jonny Rust) are young and old, aristocrats and nouveau riche. The snooty rich look down upon the Industrialists; the old fail to comprehend the opportunistic, money-grabbing youth; and while they do eventually resolve their differences in a lively debate in which nobody is quite who they seem, the rumblings of World War One sound off in the distance and threaten to destroy their grand but less-than-perfect lives. As a socialist, Shaw’s views are all too plain within the satirical comedy.
This production is certainly comic, even borderline farcical. While these themes simmer away in the background, the main narrative revolves around a marriage proposal. Hesione (Helen Anker), an Edwardian hostess, invites her protégé Ellie (Lianne Harvey) to dinner at her father’s home to dissuade her from marrying the ageing Industrialist Boss Mangan (JP Turner) for his money. Ellie, however, has already fallen for another man who just happens to be Hesione’s husband, Hector (Mat Betteridge). Except Hector himself is in love with Hesione’s estranged sister Lady Ariadne (Francesca Burgoyne), who’s already married to the bumbling and hopelessly in love Randall (Toby Spearpoint). Later, a burglar enters the story intent on being caught to blackmail his victims (Richard Harfst).
This is the stuff of soap opera, the play’s first act especially frothy. The affairs of these aristocrats are wrapped up in silliness, but it’s so charmingly done that it’s easy to forget about the play’s serious themes. Anker is wonderfully engaging as the gossiping Hesione, with Burgoyne’s spoilt, vile Ariadne providing an ideal foil. Indeed, Hesione’s father Captain Shotover (James Horne) may be the patriarch of the household, but it’s the women who run the drama with their overpowering charisma. In this house, men are helpless – with the exception of Shotover whose cynical views provide biting commentary.
That said, none of the characters are particularly likeable and their affairs seem petty and incidental to the greater threat outside the home. And in this version the drama is swift and concise, but its themes are reduced to background noise in the process. It makes for an entertaining but somewhat dissatisfying production whose focus seems misplaced.
Then again, that’s the point. These foolish characters are so wrapped up in their upper class affairs that the rest of the world passes them by, until the bombs arrive and it’s all too late. With Brexit looming, Willmott’s production warns that self-centred behaviour could lead us to a similar fate. For the guests of Heartbreak House at least, Europe is coming whether they like it or not.
Heartbreak House is on until 3 February 2018 at the Union Theatre. Click here for more details.