The Shaw Festival’s season of “Matters of the Heart,” has no abler proponents to the theme than playwright W. Somerset Maugham and director Neil Munro. In The Circle, which premièred in 1921, Maugham espouses that “the tragedy of love is indifference”; eight-six years later, Munro casts and crafts a production that is ever-faithful to the original, even as he discreetly and effectively underscores the rich text with a marvellous array of business.
The entire play is set in the drawing-room at Aston-Adey, M.P. Arnold Champion-Cheney’s (David Jansen) country digs. Arnold is a fastidious decorator, going to great lengths to ensure that his house is in “period” (in his case, Georgian) and, much to the chagrin of his butler (Al Kozlik, convincingly stoic at every rebuff) and footman (Ken James Stewart, delivering a wealth of unspoken commentaries with his boyish visage), every speck of dust must vanish and every vase, pillow and chair must permanently conform to his pre-ordained design.
In the early going, Arnold cuddles a pillow as he worries about the impending arrival of his mother, Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney (Wendy Thatcher) who skipped out on her marriage and only son decades ago with her husband Clive’s (David Schurmann, who sails through the roll with gusto if a tad too much upper register in his delivery), as well as best friend and fellow parliamentarian, Lord Porteous (Michael Ball—ideal as the caustic home wrecker: his false-teeth-follies are tears-in-your eyes funny). Moments later, Arnold’s young wife Elizabeth (affably and emotionally rendered by Moya O’Connell) clutches a pillow of her own as the stress of family gatherings builds. One prop, two characters, and savvy direction subliminally reinforce Arnold’s insecurity and Elizabeth’s I’ve-got-a-huge-decision-to-make angst with nary a word being said.
To make matters worse for the cast—but delicious for the audience—there’s a Guess Who’s Coming to Luncheon surprise: Clive is supposed to be in France but opts instead to come down to Dorset for a week in his cottage. For the first time since the abrupt, note-pinned-to-the-slipcase separation, the “wounder” and the “woundees” will share a meal.
As the former and current partners arrive, it falls to a newly-acquired 1750 Sheraton chair to metaphorically illuminate much of the proceedings. “It’s a fake,” pronounces Lord Porteous much to the instant consternation of Arnold. Here and elsewhere, Jansen uses a marvellous tone that echoes Niles from Frasier. Maugham has, perhaps prematurely, drawn a character whose devotion to fabric and art when added to self-confession of getting married to avoid making love puts his wife more into the role of fag hag than unloved partner. No worries. She’s fallen head-over-pearls for Teddie (Gray Powell, whose tendency to declaim robs the duo’s simmering passion of its heat until the final frames) a penniless foreign-market (Malay) businessman who is determined to add Elizabeth to the credits of his personal balance sheet.
As the abandoned and reunited get to know each other, the play shifts between comic episodes (Porteous losing patience while attempting to play the same-name game is a hoot; Munro’s deft synchronized help-staff—as they bring out bridge chairs and switch on the lights—is hilarious in its, er, brilliance) and digs at the human condition in modern society, “there are very few of us who are strong enough to make circumstances serve us.” The genius of the writing lifts the show from scene to scene in a knowing fashion that repeated visits could only bring more “ahas!” from anyone who has teetered on the edge of a relationship precipice.
The poignant, I-love-you moments of reflection or revelation, are perfectly underscored with selections from Dick Hyman and John Sheridan’s Forgotten Dreams – Archived of Novelty Piano 1920s-1930s. The parlour music not only suits the era but adds a further layer of subtlety to Lady Kitty’s faux pas when she mistakenly connects the Sheraton chair with Richard Sheridan’s 1777 play, A School for Scandal. This welcome attention to detail conclusively demonstrates Munro’s devotion to his art and is proof positive that—similar to Arnold’s obsession with minutiae but done so with a much bigger prize than just a neat and orderly life—this whole is greater than the sum of its parts. JWR