It is difficult to write a dispassionate review of Honour, a 1995 play by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. An adult drama may be buried somewhere at Honour‘s core but, in actuality, it is a comic parody of a 32-year marriage that dissolves when George, a distinguished literary intellectual (Henry Goodman) veering ever closer to old age, falls for the charms of a scheming, twenty-something journalist (Katie Brayben) who comes to interview him.
Perhaps the volcanic shift of the feminist landscape that throttled the hell out of stereotypical relationships in the 1970s failed to reach Australia until decades later, which might explain the supposed dramatic import of husbands who lust after girl-women and wives who are too busy darning socks to notice. But when the wife, Honor (Imogen Stubbs), is younger than her spouse, sexually attractive and a much-lauded poet – albeit one who has put her career on hold to raise their daughter Sophie (Natalie Simpson) and support her husband’s career – we do crave insight into Honor’s own longings and desires that were most certainly blighted when she stepped into the role of dutiful wife. Instead, we are offered a woman who bemoans the loss of her selfish, boorish husband but then, miraculously, resolves it all with a wardrobe change. She dons sunglasses, wriggles into a pair of tight-fitting jeans and publishes a highly acclaimed anthology of poems, more a frivolous statement about the power of women to prevail than a serious statement about Honor’s strength in overcoming a shattered existence.
Although the four characters in Honour should have lots to say to one another, they each end up engaged in long-winded monologues on the nature of love, loyalty, betrayal and the absence of sexual desire in long-standing marriages, leaving us wondering what their characters might have said if they weren’t merely mouthpieces for the playwright’s own sentiments on relationships. Director Paul Robinson must have sensed this, as well as the monotony of numerous contentious scenes between Honor and George which could be pared back to enhance the energy of the play.
It may sound harsh, but the only reflective exchange that takes place is between daughter Sophie and paramour Claudia. When Sophie admonishes her for destroying her mother’s marriage, Claudia responds: ‘I think I’m saving her life.’ And when Sophie recounts her childhood and the love, protection and warmth she felt knowing that her parents were asleep in the next room, you understand how devastated she is at their forthcoming divorce. ‘Everything that saved me has fallen from me, she laments.’
Finally, designer Liz Cooke enhances the fluidity of the production with a stage floor and moveable banquettes all painted to imitate the appearance of blue-veined marble. The set serves the characters well as they slide, couple and nearly fling the banquettes to express their frustration, confusion and pain. But even with four accomplished actors delivering fine performances and punching hard to introduce credibility into a flaccid script, Honour fails to deliver a taut statement on the complex aspects of human relationships.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Honour paints an unflinching portrait of what happens when a secure marriage suddenly stalls, and when the opportunity arises for one life to be revived at the expense of another. For Honor and George, the arrival of the self-assured Claudia threatens to wreck a 32-year marriage. But as the power balance starts to shift, the husband, wife, daughter and lover together must face the fundamental question – what is love?
By Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Paul Robinson
Cast: Henry Goodman, Imogen Stubbs, Katie Brayben and Natalie Simpson
Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP