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Alix Dunmore in Jane Clegg at the Finborough Theatre

“I’m not really a bad chap. I’m just weak, that’s all.”

While Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) is arguably the first and most famous ‘modern’ play about female emancipation from an inequitable marriage, it’s certainly not the only drama to tackle this once-controversial topic. Playwrights in the early 20th century such as St John Greer Ervine also addressed this subject, imagining similar circumstances not in Norway, but in Britain…

London 1913. In a modest home, Jane (Alix Dunmore) sits in the living room with her mother-in-law, Mrs Clegg (Victoria Lennox) plus her two children. As is the case most evenings, Jane’s husband Henry (Brian Martin) hasn’t arrived home – his job as a travelling salesman often blamed for his tardy disposition. When Henry does eventually arrive home, a letter addressed to him leaves him momentarily perplexed (and promptly forgotten about). However, a visit by his ‘bookie’ Mr Munce (Matthew Sim) and his boss Mr Morrison (Sidney Livingstone) makes him think long and hard about his immediate future…

Written five years before the first stage of women’s right to vote was introduced in the UK, the economic independence of women (or lack of) colours the female characters in the play. The ‘relationship’ between Jane and her mother-in-law is an important one – not because they’re ‘close’ (which they’re not) but because their respective outlook on life is so different.

Lennox’s Mrs Clegg is very much a ‘traditionalist’, taking as gospel the patriarchal notions of gender roles and assuming they shouldn’t be questioned because that’s what’s stated in the Bible – or so she thinks. By her own admission, she isn’t an educated woman and believes women who are – such as her daughter-in-law – are unhappy and upset the natural order of things. As for her son, Henry, Mrs Clegg dotes on him and won’t have a negative word said about his character. Of course she knows deep down that Henry’s very much like his father in temperament, right down to his popularity with women and how ‘freely’ he spends money…

While Mrs Clegg is all about ‘certainty’ with her absolutist world view, Jane sees things in ‘shades of grey’ and not afraid to voice the questions she has. Much like Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Jane is not certain what she believes with regards to religion anymore – at least what is attributed to it regarding marriage. Unconditional subservience to husbands when they renege on marital fidelity, truthfulness or providing for the family doesn’t sit well with her – such one-sidedness doesn’t feel natural or innately fair. At a time when suffragettes were regularly making headlines, Jane’s questioning nature is understandable and inevitable – especially with regards to Henry’s past and present behaviour. Dunmore shows through her nuanced performance, Jane’s ‘logical’ train of thought, calmly seeking empirical evidence at every step before making lasting decisions…

The “McGuffin” in the play is the money that Jane inherits from her uncle, money that Henry seeks to coax out of her, by hook or by crook. As a character, Henry is a professional ‘gaslighter’, changing his version of ‘the truth’ with each person he meets and when met with sceptism, he raises his voice – as if shouting makes his words more believable. A tact used by certain politicians today… While it would be easy to play Henry as a two-dimensional character, Martin shows through his facial expressions that Henry reacts from one moment to the next without much self-reflection or weighing up the morality of his choices. We also see in one particular scene that when given free rein to do what he wants, his natural instincts in that moment is to do the opposite, even though that would jeopardise his original intentions.

Jane Clegg (Alix Dunmore) and Mr Morrison (Sidney Livingstone)

Through the characters of Munce and Morrison, we see the full scale of the web of lies and how all the threads intersect at this moment in time. Through Munce we glimpse what desperation drives a man to do, while with Morrison we see how being civil and offering an opportunity to explain is rebuffed, met with anger and indignation.

© Michael Davis 2020

Jane Clegg to be made available for free viewing online through the Society of London Theatre’s Official London Theatre YouTube channel. The video will be available to view until 5th August.

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