Diana Rigg, Martin Jarvis and Natascha McElhone are currently treading the boards at Wyndham’s theatre in a marital drama by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by David Grindley. Caroline Bishop went to the St Valentine’s Day press night to watch Honour, a play about adultery, mid-life crisis and the break up of a long marriage – themes that no doubt made a few happy couples squirm in their seats.
Honor (Diana Rigg) is a woman who was once on the cusp of a great literary career. Like many women of her generation, she sacrificed potential successes to follow her husband and raise his child. After 32 years of marriage she still enjoys a loving relationship with her academic husband George, but wonders if the love and life they share is based more on the memory of what it once was, rather than the reality of what it is now.
Martin Jarvis plays George, a successful man of letters whose inflated ego leads him to think that a pretty twenty-something journalist who comes to interview him would find him sexually attractive. He sees in the youthful Claudia an ambition and a determination that he once saw in Honor, but ironically the qualities he loved in his wife were eroded by the fact of their marriage. Realising he loves Honor “as a wife” and looking to add a dash of long-lost passion to his life, he leaves her, proclaiming “I’m not dead yet”.
Claudia (Natascha McElhone), on interviewing George for a book of profiles, is inspired by his intellect. She symbolises the ambitions and ideals of women of her generation who will not give up their own passions for someone else’s. Consequently, she looks down on Honor for the self-sacrificing decisions she once made and the loyalty she has given her husband. Sharp-tongued and selfish, she feels her affair with George is rectifying Honor’s sacrifices.
Sophie (Georgina Rich), a 24-year-old student, is pulled into the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, disgusted at the thought of her father with a woman barely older than herself. She is angry at her father, an old man living the stereotype, but also at her mother, who she feels is a fool for letting George “use her up” during their marriage. Naïve and insecure, she also envies Claudia for her looks and go-getting attitude.
Essentially, Murray-Smith’s story is the cliché of old-man-leaves-old-wife-for-younger-woman. But told through a series of short, sharp scenes with snappy dialogue, the play examines the reasons behind the cliché, and the clash between old-fashioned values of loyalty and honour and the 21st century attitude of women who want it all and men who want to feel young again. Which is the better way to live? Thrown into a situation that cannot be reversed, all four characters find that perhaps the answer is not what they thought.
Honour is booking until 6 May at Wyndham’s theatre.