Monday, 18 February 2013

The Stepmother, Githa Sowerby, Orange Tree

I went to see Githa Sowerby’s 1924 play, The Stepmother, at The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond on 16 February 2013. Before this production the play had never been performed in public (there was a private performance in 1924). In fact Sowerby, the author of a critically acclaimed play about a bullying industrialist, Rutherford & Son (1912), had been largely forgotten.

Over the years there have been rumblings of a revival of interest in Githa Sowerby (1876 – 1970). In 1980 the Theatre Upstairs put on an abridged version of Rutherford & Son. The Times Literary Supplement in 1994 talked of the “uncovered greatness of Githa Sowerby” in a review of a production of the play at the Cottesloe Theatre. Then she sank back into obscurity until 2009 with the publication of a biography by Pat Riley (Looking for Githa); the unveiling of a plaque at her Gateshead home; a revival of Rutherford & Son by Northern Stage; and other events in Tyneside to commemorate the Gateshead-born author – a veritable Githa Sowerby Festival.  

The Stepmother tells the story of Lois Relph’s marriage to Eustace Gaydon. Eustace gained influence over Lois when she was a young woman alone in the world, married her for her money, and immediately got control of her fortune. Running through his female relatives’ money is something of a habit of his: he’s already spent his Aunt Charlotte’s and for all we know (it isn’t mentioned) his first wife’s as well. Lois has no idea what he has done with the money, where it’s invested, even how much she has. If she needs money she has to ask Eustace for it, and then he only doles out small amounts. The situation continues even when she sets up her own business as a dress-designer (Eustace calls it her hobby), and might have continued indefinitely had not her eldest stepdaughter Monica needed money to make a marriage settlement, which Lois promises to provide. But when she tries to raise the funds, Lois discovers how much power her husband exercises over her and her affairs…

Despite the title and the fact that Lois cares deeply for her stepdaughters (a pleasant antidote to the Cinderella-Stepmother myth), the play isn’t really about being a step-mother. It’s about female autonomy and power within patriarchy. It offers a powerful exploration of the methods the system utilises to contain and control the feminine. Most obviously, these are through the control of property and the exclusion of women from male institutions (eg law, banking, investment industries). But – and it’s the confrontation with this issue that made the play of especial interest to me – it’s also through the use of language.

If the gasps of horror that greeted a number of Eustace’s utterances are anything to go by, others in the audience were impressed by this too. Eustace’s speeches are a master class in manipulation: in their use of jokes and flippancy; the undermining of Lois’s feelings and perceptions; the patronising assurances that all is well combined with just enough hints that all is not well to create a debilitating state of anxiety; the reversal of blame; the play for sympathy; the refusal to answer direct questions; the deflections from the main issue; the generalisations and vague criticisms. The bully’s language has many tactics, all designed to throw the victim off balance, to enforce their belief in their own ignorance and powerlessness (which at its most effective will have some basis in truth – Lois doesn’t know what’s happened to her money nor can she get it back); to put them in the wrong and instil a sense of the weakness of their cause.

If perhaps there were moments when we teetered on the brink of hissing Eustace and turning him into a pantomime villain, they were brief and the emotional and ideological impact of the play barely faltered. The performances were fantastic, in particular a plausible, gently-spoken Christopher Ravenscroft as Eustace and Katie McGuinness as Lois carrying us through all the horrors of a woman realising the reality of her position.  It’s a marvellous production and if you get the chance to see it don’t let it slip through your fingers!

My only carping criticism is of the seating arrangements. Unnumbered seating is all very well, but when the management tries to pack the audience in like sardines, and the audience refuses to be packed it doesn’t make for a very comfortable experience! And no, a seat that only has room for three people doesn’t seat four…

The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 9 March 2013 -

Patricia Riley’s biography, Looking for Githa, is available at Amazon – it’s gone onto my wish list!

The Times Literary Supplement, The uncovered greatness of Githa Sowerby, 14 June 1994

Rutherford And Son, Michael Billington, The Guardian, 18 June 1980

The Guardian, 14 August 2009: Githa Sowerby, the forgotten playwright, returns to the stage