Questioned on the witness stand about his handling of investments, the defendant argued, “Rules are important, but you shouldn’t be a slave to rules, either.” That line was uttered by Kenneth Lay during his current trial arising from the Enron bankruptcy, but it could have been lifted from Harley Granville-Barker’s “The Voysey Inheritance.” Defending his appropriation of client capital to bolster the firm’s financial success, the title character bullishly tells his son, “I have gone beyond the letter of the law.” What makes this thrillingly up-to-the-minute play so extraordinary is that it was written in 1905.
Not that Peter Gill’s resplendent National Theater production is callow enough to insult auds by underlining contemporary parallels. Looking for all the world like characters sprung from John Singer Sargent paintings, all 22 cast members fairly glow in the comfort of Alison Chitty’s perfectly re-created Edwardian-era sets. Though they take a worryingly long time to take shape — covered by a collage of turn-of-the-century sounds — the sets are worth waiting for. Where others might suffocate beneath the weight of lavish detail, Gill’s actors feast upon it as they deliver the play’s remarkable depths.
Granville-Barker superbly wrong-foots auds by beginning with what threatens to be a simple “sins of the father” scenario. Old man Voysey (Julian Glover) is confronted at his prosperous family law firm by his distressed, upstanding son Edward (Dominic West, cast successfully against type as a weak man), who has been through the books and discovered not so much irregularities as a sustained flouting of the law.
For decades, Voysey, like his father before him, has routinely played the markets with his investors’ capital. Interest has been paid, but should anyone withdraw their initial sum the firm would collapse, taking the quietly amassed Voysey family fortune down with it. Edward is appalled by Voysey’s disregard for what is “right” — “That is a word one must learn to use very carefully,” equivocates his father. At the risk of ruining the family name, Edward decides to tell the truth to the entire extended family.
Both plot and tension thicken considerably in the following scene, with the family and its servants ranged around the immense dining table. Edward, waiting to spill the beans, sits in terrifying, charged-up silence, undercutting the tightly woven web of family connections that Granville-Barker skillfully — and often hilariously — brings to the fore. By now it’s clear that what looked like a financial thriller has turned into a seriously juicy saga about a family and its (mis)fortunes.
As possible ruin threatens to engulf them, Edward’s brothers and sisters, their spouses, relatives and friends all reveal their true colors. The multiplicity of their responses is the play’s trump card.
Honor and individual reputations are at stake as corruption stalks the shocking aftermath of Edward’s revelations. Where a lesser writer would populate the argument of dodgy pragmatism vs. dogged probity with easily pigeonholed saints and sinners, Granville-Barker finesses engrossing drama from flesh-and-blood characters whose motives are sophisticatedly mixed.
Scene after scene unfolds with the least expected characters unraveling or rebelling in the face of exposure. As Hugh, Edward’s failed artist brother, Martin Hutson shimmers with zeal, launching into a tirade about the state of art where “critics much prefer paintings of paintings” to the real, original thing. His attack on the tyranny of the second-rate is really a metaphor for the play’s radical argument about hypocrisy and the meaning(s) of money, but the force of Hutson’s superbly honed passion means it never sounds like the author’s viewpoint.
His strength lends true sadness to Hugh and his novelist wife’s decision to separate. As Kirsty Bushell’s calm Beatrice touchingly reflects, “Hugh’s great tragedy is that he is just clever enough to have seen through himself. And no cleverer.” The taint of divorce enrages Hugh’s brother Booth, played by Andrew Woodall in a career-best perf as the bull-in-a-china-shop army major. Forever furiously uncomprehending, he’s not so much a stuffed shirt as hilariously overupholstered yet, simultaneously, strangely touching.
Director Gill (himself a playwright) has the finest ear in British theater, a pitch-perfect sense of the cadence and meaning of a line. He uses his gift for understanding how language conceals and reveals character like an expert conductor, keeping the rhythm alive while balancing his players to allow every note to be sounded. As a result, almost every actor is allowed to shine.
John Normington rises from lawyer’s clerk to the worm that turns with Uriah Heep-esque unctuousness. Though he has a tendency toward bluster, Glover contrives to make his financial finagling seem almost admirable. As amused, modern-minded Alice, Nancy Carroll sails from skepticism to excitement with an upswept grace that could turn an always impressive actor into a star. Even Gill’s immaculate choreography of the servants allows auds to be caught up in the social pecking order.
As put-upon Honor, Lucy Briers sighs, “I sometimes think we’re a very difficult family,” which wins the evening’s prize for understatement. Gill’s labor-of-love production, however, is an almost shockingly easy pleasure to watch.