The Voysey Inheritance, National Theatre: Lyttelton
A glorious Inheritance
Premiered 100 years ago at the Royal Court, Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance remains, in Peter Gill's atmospheric, exquisitely acted production, a great family drama of the British 20th century.
Reviewed by Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard, 26 April 2006
The play famously launches a socialist salvo against capitalist values and ethics: Tony Blair would just loathe The Voysey Inheritance and one of my incidental pleasures was to fantasise that the Prime Minister sat nearby, squirming and sweating and fuming.
With sardonic, satirical relish and some sadness, Barker exposes all those dangerous character-flaws common to plays in which the English middle classes fall out and resort to verbal fisticuffs when criminality in the family comes to light: father and son, son and best friend, brother and brother clash like sworn enemies with no shared views.
Hypocrisy and humbuggery, secrecy and greed, financial fraud and selfishness come on hand-in-hand, betraying no sense of shame.
'Business nowadays is run on a confidence trick,' explains Julian Glover's swaggering Mr Voysey, an old pillar-of-society solicitor and accomplished raider of his clients' financial assets all through a respectable career.
There is a startling Ibsenite ring to the fraught first scene in which Glover's impenitent Voysey summons his partner/son, Dominic West's Edward, to explain what he will inherit when he takes over the firm: thanks to the verve of Edward's grandfather a proud but secret family tradition exists by which clients' money has always been used to afford the Voyseys a sumptuous, if illegal, income. The situation is at once shocking and blackly comic.
Alison Chitty's design, all slanted to one side of the stage, seems infuriatingly dysfunctional, with over-long scene changes and West masked for ages thanks to a useless sideboard.
Yet the atmosphere, with gentlemen dressed in studied, frock-coated formality right down to the flower in the lapel, and respectability worn as a facade, evokes just the right mood.
West, in an arresting performance of creativity and emotional power, plays Edward not as an anxious, do-gooding prig, but a man who feels himself an outsider in his own family. Shattered by the discovery of criminality, he is despairingly goaded by that unfamiliar, discarded thing in Voysey circles - a conscience which nags.
After old Voysey's funeral, the scene in which Edward breaks the news of his father's embezzlements and speculative profiteering to the family in general, and Doreen Mantle's amusing, inscrutable mother in particular, marks a high-water point in English theatre.
Its combination of satirical comedy, with its critique of self-righteous middle-class Edwardians and its angry pathos, is very fine. The Voysey dining room abounds with servants, cigars and paintings, all doubtless bought with clients' money.
Edward's anguish runs in counterpoint to the hypocritical bluster and outrage of his brothers who, fearful of indecent exposure, recommend a cover-up.
Best of all is the production's formidable comic anti-hero, Andrew Woodall's Major Voysey, all stiff and smug with pomposity, his voice pitched perpetually at anger-point.
The firm's head clerk, Peacey, and Voysey's best friend, Booth, respectively portrayed to sharp comic point by John Normington and John Nettleton, serve as obstacles to Edward's attempt to avenge the past.
As organised by Gill, the denouement, with its radical take on women moving towards and out of marriage, is not escapist-romantic but a sign that the New Edwardian woman may be the making of her male counterpart. Glorious.
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