When The Circle was first produced, 2½ years after the end of World War One, convention, hierarchy, the status quo, women’s roles, language, suffrage and much else had been dealt a seismic blow by the huge upheaval of that war. A hundred years on we are so used to where the pieces landed that I wondered how director, Tom Littler, would approach a play that addresses issues that are so long in the past.
Somerset Maugham set his play in the large country home of the wealthy political elite - that class which both benefits from convention and can most get away with flouting it - and the chaise longue, the glazed doors onto the garden and the 1920s music that greeted us as we entered the auditorium, followed by the butler (Robert Maskell)’s opening cameo, both obsequious and quietly insubordinate, made it clear that the Orange Tree Theatre’s production is a period piece that would not be straying far from the original.
Jane Asher, who seems never to grow old, is exquisitely cast as Lady Kitty Champion-Cheney. She had abandoned her husband and child 30 years earlier to pursue love and happiness with her married lover, Lord Porteous, but he, love and happiness have long since shrivelled and she is left obsessively seeking her lost youth through lipstick, hair that she believes no-one knows is dyed, her innumeracy about her age and magnificent gowns (all credit to designer Louie Whitemore). Hughie Porteous comes across as unrelentingly curmudgeonly and it’s only well through the play that he shows us a hint of what Lady Kitty might have abandoned her life and good standing for. It is entirely in character that Nicholas Le Provost should play him mumbling grumpily around the stage, though unfortunate for those in the audience who would have liked to hear more of his words.
This couple is being hosted by Lady Kitty’s abandoned son, Arnold (Pete Ashmore, whose stiff manner and staid dress perfectly communicate the structure it seems Arnold has had to create for himself), and Arnold’s young wife Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall). Elizabeth is dewy-eyed at the prospect of meeting a woman who sacrificed her social standing for love and romance while Arnold, who believes in honour, duty and decency, is apprehensive about meeting his mother for the first time since he was five. Into this comedy of manners walk the affable recovered cuckold, Clive Champion-Cheney (Clive Francis) along with Teddie (Daniel Burke), a friend of Arnold’s who is recently demobbed, footloose and free of the social standing or pretensions of everyone else.
An offstage cuckoo (clever sound design from Max Pappenheim) and the scene is set.
The two generations mirror each other in age and intent. The older generation have made their decisions (or had their lives determined by the decisions of others) and are living the consequences; the younger have to decide what matters most to them now, without knowing how things will play out, whether history will repeat itself and bring things full circle…
Will they be beset by scandal, lose their reputations, be stripped of their careers? Will love endure and lead to lasting happiness or will it sink into indifference? Is it possible to be happy without making others unhappy? Can you get ‘divorced’ from someone you were never able to marry?
As Kitty asks, “Will they suffer all we suffered? And have we suffered all in vain?”
The title contains a bigger circle: Do those who are older and more experienced have anything to teach the young, and do the young have anything to learn from their elders? Or does none of that matter since everything depends on character and circumstance?
The reason I really shouldn’t have been concerned about Tom Littler setting the play when Somerset Maugham did is because its core are these eternal questions.