Wednesday 20 February 2019

Agnes Colander: An Attempt At Life @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Agnes Colander: An Attempt At Life @ Jermyn Street Theatre

There's a lot wrapped up in that subtitle, "an attempt at life". It was one of many considered by playwright Harley Granville Barker for this somewhat feminist work, but it's particularly apt for both the play and this production. There's a sense of uplifting positivity to it, of aiming for better, of emancipation. Yet it equally connotes something less than successful, a misfire.

Agnes Colander receives its premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre some 120 years after it was written, directed by Trevor Nunn. Granville Barker decided against putting the play into production at the time and that's largely for its provocative, progressive view of women. Now, its impact has faded though it remains a curio in this prolific writer's output.

At the centre of the play is the titular Agnes (Naomi Frederick), a thoroughly modern woman by Edwardian standards. She is a dissatisfied artist seeking her place in the world, a place that is not at the side of a man. Yet, having left her husband three years earlier, she finds herself (shockingly) living with another man and pursued by a third, both of whom bring out different sides in her personality. She is coquettish and coy, but also an irresistible temptress. She is an independent woman beholden to no one, a walking contradiction who cannot be held down in one place for too long.

And so her attempt at life is her striving to find her own voice - as an artist and as a woman. Of course, this is not how a woman should act in the eyes of the two men who, paradoxically, seem enchanted by her difference. When she's described as "unwomanly" she seems positively thrilled.

In its gender politics, the play is as much a statement on masculinity too. In Otto (Matthew Flynn) we have a brutish, controlling and overbearing form of masculinity; in Alexander a more boyish, naive and pathetic image. Both seem weak against the sheer force of Agnes, Frederick's performance encapsulating her varying moods and her strength.

Nunn's production, though, doesn't quite have the biting radicalism the play hints at. This is an understated period piece with solid performances from the cast, and appropriate music (composed by Steven Edis) and set and costume design (Robert Jones). Yet there's a lack of necessary sexual tension; instead it all feels too polite and underwhelming, moving at too slow a pace to generate any real drama. This attempt at life ultimately fizzles.


Watch: Agnes Colander runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 16th March.

Agnes Colander: An Attempt At Life @ Jermyn Street Theatre
Photo: Robert Workman