Age of Arousal
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 19 February 2011, and touring
THE standard view of the Victorians is they were all buttoned up. They lived in a world of social niceties where a woman could take offence at a man simply if he were a little too eager, and society could ostracise a woman just for stepping out with a male companion without a proper introduction. It is this kind of primness playwright Linda Griffiths has fun with in Age of Arousal. For although on the outside, her characters show the genteel restraint of their era, on the inside, they burst with a lusty passion that seems entirely 21st century
Rarely does an .exchange go by in Muriel Romanes' vigorous production for Stella Quines and the Royal Lyceum without a feverish aside to the audience. To each other, these women behave with due decorum. To us, they reveal the pulsing, uninhibited life-force they have to repress.
This is very funny and it's also a neat way of communicating information originally explained at length in George Gissing's 1893 novel, The Odd Women, on which Griffiths bases her play. It is not only because of etiquette that the women working at a philanthropic secretarial school feel their life-force ebbing. It is also because of the historical anomaly that in Victorian Britain there were 500,000 more women than men. They were "odd" in the sense of not being evenly matched with a man and odd also, as Griffiths has it, because their lack of prospects as wives and mothers pushed them into eccentricity and mental disquiet.
This side of the story provides much of the life and energy of the production, as Molly Innes and Alexandra Mathie play two splendidly unhinged sisters trying to keep pace with the modern thinking of Clare Lawrence Moody and Ann Louise Ross as they run their secretarial business without male help, and with Hannah Donaldson as their pretty - and pretty lusty - younger sister. Theirs is a brave new word of change, epitomised by an exhibition of impressionist painters that they find both shocking and intriguing.
But Age of Arousal reveals another consequence of the gender imbalance. The large numbers of independent, self-reliant women created a ready market for the radical new ideas that were emerging about emancipation and feminism. In the case of Rhoda Nunn (Lawrence Moody), her single status is not just a historical accident but a political act, a defiant rebuke to the institution of marriage and the tyranny of patriarchy.
Until she falls in love with a man, that is.
What's fascinating about the play is it avoids sentimentalising these proto-feminists as clear-headed sisters doing it for themselves. Instead, it presents them as women pulled in all kinds of directions, trying to forge a philosophy from the white noise of sexual urges, social convention, class prejudice, new ways of thinking, quack medicine and industrialisation. They are people of their time, drawn into the social revolution as much as instigating it.
With a fine ensemble performance making the most of the fluidity of Janet Bird's open set, Age of Arousal brilliantly captures the passion, the politics and the bewilderment of changing times. (Pic: Marc Marnie)
© Mark Fisher 2011
More coverage at theatreSCOTLAND.com
Sign up for theatreSCOTLAND updates
Sign up for theatreSCOTLAND discussion