Honour | Ensemble Theatre

Image by Prudence Upton

This review comes from Night Writes guest reviewer Gabriella Florek

It must be so delicious for any writer to experience the audible gasp, groan, or outburst of an audience reacting to a punchy line, a witty comeback, or a harsh truth. Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour has no shortage of these. Her play is cleverly punctuated by all those things I imagine people wish they had said or perhaps have said in a painful or awkward moment.

While I felt myself cheering along with the audience (even if it was a little like a boxing match at times), I also felt myself getting distracted by it. The heart of Murry-Smith’s writing after all, is less about those glamorous punchlines, and more about the struggle of human relationships and the things people do, even if often accidentally, to undermine them.

This story of Honour is presented in a tight four-hander which centres around the sudden breakdown of a marriage between Honour (Lucy Bell) and George (Huw Higginson). Added to the drama was their university aged daughter Sophie (Poppy Lynch) and, of course, the object of desire who turned George’s head and had him question his commitment to Honour, Claudia (Ayeesha Ash). With a clean, polished set and lighting design by Simone Romaniuk and Damien Cooper, the stage was made clear for a realistic or even hyper-realistic drama to unfold.

On the surface, the story seemed to follow a simple formula: a successful married man meets a younger woman who he soon leaves his wife for only to be surprised that the younger woman has little interest in maintaining the relationship. This was gently complicated by the fact that Claudia, who George falls for, is only a little older than his daughter Sophie. Then there was the fact that Honour, like George, is a writer, although she has made her living relatively close to home whereas George has made a living from his craft. The sacrifices Honour has made professionally and personally were made for him and for their marriage and George’s argument for leaving made Honour feel selfless but senseless.

Watching the play demanded a special kind of attention to who said what and when and how it was said. But I wonder whether this play, first written in the 1990s, holds the same kind of meaning for young women my age as it would to those of Murray-Smith’s generation? While many of us are still getting married, there are several of us who are actively choosing not to or leaving it until a later stage, or perhaps (Shock! Horror!) barely thinking about it. The pressures of marriage are no doubt felt socially and communally and we still generally hold it to a kind of golden standard — “it’s what we all want” we tell ourselves — but we might not really know what “it” means anymore.

Of course, watching Claudia insert herself into George and Honour’s life before carelessly snatching up the husband was cringey to watch. But her struggle, which Murray-Smith gave voice to, is one worth noting. Claudia wants what Honour has, but she doesn’t have the emotional tools to get it — rightfully or otherwise. She is, as she later reveals, envious of Honour and the energy and love she has nurtured in her marriage with George. Claudia does not feel she could ever do the same. Perhaps she is ruthless in the way she takes George for her own, but I wonder if she is driven out of desperation for herself and not the willing desire to destroy.

Also fascinating was the interaction between the daughter Sophie and Claudia. Sophie yearns for the kind of attention from her father that can only be obtained by an intellectual rigour that she seems to lack. And ironically, it is this quality that draws George to Claudia and away from Honour, even though Honour herself seems to abandon that which made her an attractive partner in the first place. Sophie confesses her jealousy for what Claudia has in a heartbreaking exchange between the two young women. Not only is Claudia intelligent, beautiful, and knows how to speak with men, but she has now claimed Sophie’s father as one of her possessions.

Honour is a cleverly written play full of direct and painful confrontations between its characters. In many ways, I found myself yearning for a more in-depth examination of the ways the women in the play related to one another rather than the way they related to the one man. The cast handled the wordiness and punchiness of the play with deftness, making it a pleasure to watch, even in the more painful and gritty moments. Kate Champion’s direction was certainly true to the play, but I wonder if greater risks could have been taken here. George is, of course, an easy target, but the ways in which the women hold each other up and tear each other apart was what I wished I could have seen more of. After all, these women were all somehow responsible for Honour’s demise as well as her subtle rise to power by the end of the play.

Honour is running at Ensemble Theatre from April 23rd – June 5th

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