The strangest things reveal the tenor of an entire production. In the case of “Honour,” it’s Liz Ascroft’s set. David Grindley’s revival of Joanna Murray-Smith’s adultery-in-middle-age drama places a tasteful, antique dining table and chairs onstage, backed by bookcases. This, it announces, is a dramatic world of naturalism. Unfortunately, that’s not the mode in which this consciously contrived play is written.
Murray-Smith takes the all-too-recognizable scenario of a 60-year-old man abandoning his wife for a woman half his age but pulls the affair into close-up. What she writes is less of a drama, more 18 scenes of conversation around love, marriage and loss in which events are replaced by discussion. It’s all before and after, rather than during. And the familiarity of the situation itself accounts for this, the play’s second London appearance in a major production in under three years.
Following stagings in the author’s native Australia in 1995 and at Broadway’s Belasco in 1998, “Honour” had a highly successful run at the National’s Cottesloe Theater in 2003. There, a quartet of performers including an Olivier-winning Eileen Atkins plus Corin Redgrave, added luster to Roger Michell’s first-rate production. But it was clear even then that Michell’s crisply abstracted, little-or-no-furniture vision of the play flattered the material. Only now do we see quite how much.
In Grindley’s revival, Diana Rigg is Honor, the erstwhile poet who rises above betrayal. Martin Jarvis plays her husband, George, a highly literate, Hampstead-dwelling social commentator. Natascha McElhone plays beautiful, go-getting journalist Claudia, with whom George falls helplessly and, finally, hopelessly in love. Georgina Rich takes the relatively minor role of Honor and George’s plain 24-year-old daughter, Sophie.
The strength of the writing lies in Murray-Smith’s ability to apply a scalpel to the behavior of polite people struggling to behave under increasing pressures of shifting responsibilities. In keeping with its characters’ refined minds and manners, the language is by turn witty and stark. Yet when a typical scene opens with the line, “Why does the heart take precedence?” it’s clear the writing is knowingly artificial. Where Michell underlined this to bracing and engaging effect, Grindley fatally attempts to make it seem everyday. As a result, many of the debates teeter over into archness.
For all its amusingly sharp retorts, it comes across like Neil Simon with an attack of the smarts. And, as with Simon, it’s not the punchlines that are the problem, it’s the setups. “What fabulous irony,” cries Honor. “That just as I begin to lose my appetite for imagining catastrophe, catastrophe actually happens.” The line seems marvelously neat, until you stop to wonder who ever did have an appetite for imagining catastrophe?
More problematically, the dice are too loaded. Take the title. Yes, “Honour” is about honor in personal relationships, but did Murray-Smith have to pun upon that with the name of her central character? Her underlying sympathies are so increasingly obvious — we know from horribly early on that Claudia is dangerously shallow — that the drama is drained away.
Matters are not helped by a genial but miscast Jarvis. The actor has done so much radio and audio work that his voice and body now seem disconnected, his physicality arriving as an afterthought. In scenes where he is anxious to please, he stands with his weight thrown forward to adopt a supposedly urgent pose. But it’s just that: a pose. Worse, he gets stuck in it, which means all urgency is lost.
Rigg fares better. Increasingly embroiled in pain, she opts for irony and — a Rigg specialty — withering disdain. Yet that detachment assumes we understand she is masking deep hurt. Too often, however, it just means we see only the surface.
Grindley’s failure to mesh their acting styles leaves them dangerously disconnected throughout. Unless we feel the pain of their separation after decades, we’re left with the fact that the play sentimentally suggests a good deal while actually revealing not much. This dully dutiful revival fails to disprove Claudia’s line: “If we don’t be our, our best selves, we’re just one more old man with his lover — we’re just one more old cliche.”