Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Well, here’s a marvellous rediscovery. A rare play by prize winning author, Doris Lessing who died in 2014. Each His Own Wilderness had a staged reading at the Royal Court in 1958 but Paul Miller now running the Orange Tree with commendable bravura and flair (despite having his Arts Council funding completely cut on his first day in charge) has provided Lessing’s extraordinary play with its first full production.
And what a revelation it turns out to be, a spiritual companion piece to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger but with more flavour and variety and without the monologuic self-obsession of the play commonly cited as changing the course of modern British drama. But the sense of being touched by the same generational zeitgeist is absolutely palpable. The whiff of resentful cordite flies off the play in the voice this time of recently demobbed National serviceman, Tony, son of Myra, activist and bohemian.
Tony played with devastating sensitivity and pain by recent (2013) RADA graduate Joel MacCormack is a young/old man before his time. Sickened by the hypocrisy of the life his mother lives and the gap between her communist humanitarianism (she’s a busy committee member at a time, 1958, which is seeing the beginning of CND) and her treatment of friends and himself, he lets off a series of memorable invectives that resonate as strongly today as when Lessing penned them. There’s a particular prescience in her insight into the numbing/dumbing consequences of materialistic aspiration and the selling of socialism as a kind of sop to improving people’s lives but resulting in monochrome uniformity of houses all looking the same, with the same front door and within `each [living] his own wilderness’. (Think Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes and you’ll get the drift).
A world weary cynicism emanates from Tony but the refreshing thing about Lessing as opposed to Osborne (or, it might be said of Stoppard) is her handling of social and political arguments alongside the development of real characters and personal dynamics. Myra and Tony, Lessing shows, are entwined almost like lovers within a love-hate relationship. But on the fringes of their oedipal obsession circulate old lovers, new girl friends and bracingly, Myra’s good friend Milly, the mother of the young man Myra has recently taken to bed. Again anticipating feminism’s later swirls, Lessing flirts with and breaks taboos about society’s views of women as much as she does its conventions for men.
Without wishing to give anything away as to the play’s final outcome, suffice it to say that Lessing produces a climax of repudiation, especially regarding political activism that considering her own life is all the more remarkable for its self-awareness and self- criticism.
Miller’s production too is beautifully cast mixing experience – Clare Holman as Myra, Susannah Harker (a wonderfully overripe and blowsy Milly), John Lightbody, Roger Ringrose as two of Myra’s older lovers – with youth (Josh Taylor as Milly’s priggish public school bred, slightly pompous son, Sandy), Rosie Holden astonishing as a gauche, unconfident new girlfriend and the above mentioned Joel MacCormack.
Each His Own Wilderness turns out to be a rich cornucopia of dissonant emotions, spiced with passion, disillusion, anger and egotism – a real treat as a piece of drama. Eat, feast, enjoy. And don’t miss!
Each His Own Wilderness is at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond to May 16, 2015
First published in Londongrip, April 2015