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Above left: Yael Stone and William Zappa.

Above right: Paula Arundell and William Zappa.

All pictures: Brett Boardman.

Above and below: Wendy Hughes in Honour.

POSTED: 30 APRIL 2010

Honour, by Joanna Murray-Smith

Sydney Theatre Company | Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney | Until 29 May

The tale that Joanna Murray-Smith weaves in Honour is both universal and timeless. With only minor modifications to setting and characters, it could, I’m sure, be picked up, transferred and not be out of place just about anywhere, any time.

Successful middle-aged male falls head over heels for attractive, possibly but not necessarily bright, much younger woman, and in a fit of perhaps foolish passion leaves his wife, who has willingly, or maybe not so willingly, given up her career to support his and to raise their family.

Murray-Smith doesn’t necessarily uncover any new angles to the story. Her great achievement is to take so many different angles, in this case from four viewpoints, and ever so seamlessly weld them together into an extremely moving, challenging and provocative story.

Director Lee Lewis has elicited outstanding performances from an exceptionally talented quartet of actors who in turn elicit strong, at times almost barracking, responses from the audience.

George (William Zappa) is a successful academic and writer, a man with an insightful, fertile mind that suddenly seems to snap as he is enveloped by the dizzying spell of Claudia (Paula Arundell), a young journalist sent to interview him. She, too, has a razor-sharp mind, not to mention a razor-sharp body.

Wendy Hughes, one of Australia’s finest screen and stage actors, plays Honor, herself once a significant writer who gave up an assured future in the field 32 years previously when she married George.

Their daughter Sophie (Yael Stone) is a contemporary of Claudia, but not nearly so brash and confident, and seriously struggling to express her confusion and emotion at this sudden and clearly unimagined twist of life.

Hughes is utterly convincing as Honor, vividly expressing betrayal, anger, hurt, insecurity and maybe even a little martyrdom about her own role in creating the situation that has unfolded. She also gets some of Murray-Smith’s best lines.

The lithe, lean Arundell knows how to use her body to great effect, and quite cleverly displays both sides of her character — at times, super-confident, brash, I’m out to get wherever and whatever I want; at other times, quite desperate for confirmation and the security it brings.

Arundell’s interchanges with Hughes — about how much she admired her early work, about what contempt she has for her willingness to abandon that career, about how much like her she must have once been — are real highlights, and quite central to the moral dilemmas that Honour throws up.

Having so much enjoyed Stone’s performance in STC’s production of Elling last year, when she presented a range of roles demanding a show of strength, even daring, it was particularly interesting to see her so convincingly portray the opposite — an insecure, confused, stammering young woman trying desperately to confront her own and her parents’ weaknesses.

But the greatest applause must be left for Zappa, who is absolutely marvellous as the besotted George, trying to express his love for Honor while at the same time justifying his decision to abandon everything he has held dear for more than three decades.

He’s genuinely elated in his affair with Claudia, but there’s an edge of despair as he realises it may be a will o’ the wisp. And his philosophical battle with what the concept of love really means is right at the heart of Murray-Smith’s construction.

A special mention must go to set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell and lighting designer Damien Cooper. Their minimalist, brightly lit wooden-beam setting is ingenious, providing the actors maximum flexibility and encouraging the audience to imagine what might be there rather than just absorb what is there.

STC’s Honour is an exceptional production of a great, complex play. Rob the piggy bank if you need to, but do try to see it.

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