Agnes Colander, Ustinov Studio, Bath

TREVOR Nunn’s first production at Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio is causing excitement in the theatre world – a world premiere of a play written 118 years ago by one of the greatest writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Harley Granville Barker’s early work, in a draft form, was found at the British Library by Colin Cham­­bers and Richard Nelson, during their researches into the writer’s work. Nelson painstakingly created the “new” play, using as much of the original as could be deciphered, and retaining the stage directions.

Now Agnes Colander sees the light of day at Bath, with Naomi Frederick in the title role creating a woman whose journey of self-discovery is reflected in her art.  Married young to a much older man, she has left her husband to try to support herself by painting. It is 1900 and she lives in a garret studio in London, visited by her Danish artist friend and Alec, a young, besotted, distant cousin of her husband.

Refusing her husband’s suggestion of a reconciliation, Agnes moves with Otho to Normandy, where Otho’s paintings are popular with customers. He wants Agnes to create pretty pictures to tempt buyers. Throughout the play she works surreptitiously on a canvas which is only revealed as the lights dim.

The subject matter of Agnes Colander explains why it was never performed in Barker’s lifetime, and ironically it seemed to shock a few members of the Bath audience, who left at the interval.

Barker’s career in the theatre began as an actor, chiefly in Shaw’s plays. He was influenced by Ibsen in his later writing, often focussing on the changing lives of  women in his stories.

In Agnes Colander, his central character explores how she can fit into conventional Victorian society, and only when she is convinced   of her own development is she prepared to strike out with the man she loves.

It’s a fascinating and challenging play, brilliantly performed by the five-strong cast. Frederick captures the determination and frustration of Agnes, her ready laugh giving the character a warm humanity.

Matthew Flynn’s Otho is all testosterone-charged selfish male “genius” – a prototype for the force-of-nature artists that flowed from the pens of DH Lawrence and others.

Freddy Carter is the intense and priggish Alexander Flint, and Sally Scott the ghastly and pretentious Emmeline Marjoribanks (oddly not prounounced March­banks!)

Agnes Colander is an important addition to the theatrical works of the period, a revealing look at the situation of intellegent women at the turn of the 20th century, subtly
directed and mesmerisingly performed. It is on until Saturday 14th April.


Photographs by Simon Annand

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