Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Shaw's Superb "A Man and Some Women"

Graeme Somerville as Richard Shannon and Jenny L. Wright as Hilda Shannon in A Man and Some Women. Photo by David Cooper

Unlike "Present Laughter" which is a vehicle geared to one star, Stephen Sutcliffe, "A Man and Some Women" by Githa Sowerby includes stronger roles for several stars including Graeme Somerville, splendid as Richard Shannon, a long suffering husband and provider for his family and a formidable cast of women featuring Jenny L. Wright as Hilda, his passive-aggressive wife, Marla McLean as Jessica Hendred, who gallantly foreshadows emancipation, Sharry Flett as Elizabeth, a sister wisely reasonable and cooperative, and Kate Hennig as Rose Shannon, another sister who excels at depicting the dark side of female psychological bondage. A Man... is rich with characterization and each cast member is superb. In fact, I had to be restrained in my seat from rushing on stage to punch Kate Hennig in the nose during her nasty piece of work in this drama. (She is so good!)

Kate Hennig as Rose Shannon and Marla McLean as Jessica Hendred in A Man and Some Women. Photo by David Cooper

Present Laughter played to a full house at the large Festival Theatre while in contrast, A Man and Some Woman was staged at the tiny, sparsely attended Courthouse Theatre. It must drive Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell bananas each year in that she must produce pure fluff to make up for financial losses on vital drama that she selects.

The same scenario occurred a few years earlier with Sowerby's terrific play, Rutherford and Son. If not for her champion, Maxwell, we would never become acquainted with Githa Sowerby, focused on women's precarious economic situation in a class-based society. Maxwell and Sowerby embody the important lesson that one must risk to move forward, and A Man and Some Women is as relevant now as when written pre-WWII with significant themes that involve money, gender and the accident of birth.

Marla McLean as Jessica Hendred and Graeme Somerville as Richard Shannon in A Man and Some Women. Photo by David Cooper

As always, the Festival's program that patrons receive while being seated, is a wonderful addition to the theatre goer's experience, and why I try to get to the theatre early because the program is invariably full of wonderful material to help inform one's appreciation of the play.

Theatre like any art form is a two-way street. What the individual brings to it helps provide for a unique experience, and in this fashion, it's always accessible, but it behoves one to try to enrich the experience. Case in point: these are "Director's Notes" by Alisa Palmer clearly expressing what she brings to the party and expects to see through her cast:

Marla McLean as Jessica Hendred and Sharry Flett as Elizabeth Shannon in A Man and Some Women. Photo by David Cooper

"You've set yourself free, and you want to go back to prison." In Githa Sowerby's A Man and Some Women, Jessica possesses the dubious gift of calling things as they are. Richard's family is a prison to him, albeit in part, one of his own making. The family at the centre of Sowerby's play is bound by money, obligation, duty - everything but love. They are a man and some women thrown together by accident of birth and the imperatives of social obligation, whose strained relations are further complicated by a secret.

We meet the family on the eve of the mother's death. Change is inevitable. But is it welcome? In A Man and Some Women, characters negotiate change as we all do, through the prism of their personal values. These values, however, differ widely - perhaps irreconcilably - despite the closeness of family ties. The four women in the play, although equally disenfranchised, are locked in competition for a share of resources that are too thin on the ground. And Richard, while having access to the reins of power as a man in Victorian society, lacks the personal strength to move forward.

Marla McLean as Jessica Hendred in A Man and Some Women. Photo by David Cooper

Part of the same zeitgeist that produced Ibsen's A Doll's House, A Man and Some Women explores the inspiring idea that the conditions which oppress one segment of society also imprison another. The family at the heart of this play offers itself as a microcosm for our world today, where the weight of religion and class privilege come up against voices yearning for autonomy and independence, at times with cataclysmic results. And it is an unflinching portrait of a moment in the birth of the modern world - a birth beset by complications - movingly rendered from a rare perspective: a woman's. Jessica is a New Woman who proposes a new world, one where a family is created not from biology but from the bonds of love; where love emerges not from duty but from freedom; and that self-fulfilment is a gesture of love, not only of the self, but for others.

A Man And Some Women   Alisa Palmer   Graeme Somerville   Jenny Wright   Marla McLean

The program also offers these excellent notes on the author:
Githa Sowerby (1876-1970) was born in Gateshead, Northumberland, a city just across the river from Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her father, J.G. Sowerby, was a glass manufacturer and from I879 ran Sowerby and Co, which he had inherited from his father and grandfather. After a series of financial crises and disagreements with the Board of Directors, J.G. left Sowerby and Co. in-I896, and the family moved south to Colchester, 100 km north-east of London. Githa was the third of six children - five girls and one (the eldest) boy. Their father, who died in 1914, leaving the family badly off, was also a well-known amateur oarsman, artist, illustrator of children's books and writer. In I895 he published a semi-autobiographical work, Rooks and Their Neighbours.

Githa's brother, John Lawrence, who in his youth was always coming up with mad-cap inventions, was educated at Winchester and, after a year in the British South African Mounted Police, moved to British Columbia. Two of Githa's sisters, Helen and Ruth, married clergymen; another, Millicent, illustrated Githa's children's books after they moved to London around 1905.

While in London, Githa became a member of the Fabian Society. She continued to earn her living by writing children's literature, and between 1907 and 1912 she published ten books, including her first play, Little Plays for Little People (1910).

By 1911, Githa Sowerby was living at 6 Cheyne Row and it was there, aged 35, that she wrote Rutherford and Son. A cousin of hers remembers her reaction after the play's critical success: "She told me that on the morning after her first production she bought all the newspapers, which gave very good reviews. She said she walked along the Embankment, holding them to her and thinking, 'I shall never feel so happy again.''' She was hailed as a leading dramatist by the activist and feminist Emma Goldman (who appears this season in Ragtime) who said of her: "The women's rights women who claim for their sex the most wonderful things in the way of creative achievement, will find it difficult to explain the fact that until the author of Rutherford and Son made her appearance, no country had produced a single women dramatist of note ... It is therefore an event for a woman to come to the fore who possesses such dramatic power, realistic grasp and artistic penetration, as evidenced by Githa Sowerby."

In the following year she married Major John Kendall. John Kaye Kendall was the third of thirteen children. He had started his career in the Indian army, and on returning to Britain, made his name writing articles for Punch under the pseudonym of Dum-dum. He was also a poet and playwright, and had a success with Mrs Bill, "a slight comedy of pleasant people," staged at the Court in 1905. John died in 1952.

Githa Sowerby wrote five plays after Rutherford and Son - Before Breakfast (1912), A Man and Some Women (1914), Sheila (1917), The Stepmother (1924) and The Policeman's Whistle (1934) but only the one-act comedy Before Breakfast reached publication.

I'm sure Jackie Maxwell has read them all!

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