Wednesday, May 12, 2021


Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble Theatre presents, HONOUR, by Joanna Murray-Smith, at the Ensemble Theatre Kirribilli. 23rd April - 5th June.

HONOUR, by Joanna Murray-Smith, is a 'war-horse' in the canon of Australian Dramatic Literature, for we have seen several productions of this play over the years since its inaugural production in 1995 at the Playbox in Melbourne. Kate Champion is the Director of this present offering. Ms Murray-Smith in her program notes talks fondly of this play and suggests it may be the best of her work. Certainly, its success in Australia and Internationally might, also, verify that thought. 

I have always thought that Ms Murray-Smith was one of Australia's leading playwrights despite an infamous time when Ms Murray-Smith was represented only by this play on our professional stages in Sydney, but times have changed, and despite the fact that much of her repertoire  has not appeared in professional production here in Sydney still, plays such as her SWITZERLAND have found honour on Sydney stages and thrilled us with her wit, acuity and sensitive eye and mind for her social and political critique of our times. 

This play concerns George (Huw Higginson), a successful literary figure married to Honour (Lucy Bell), who gave up her own literary aspirations as a young poet, to care and facilitate her husband's career, and nurture their daughter, Sophie (Poppy Lynch). And after 32 years of marriage abandons it for a younger woman, Claudia (Ayeesha Ash), a brilliant student of his. It is, as Ms Murray-Smith herself asserts, not a very original story. It is one that we have seen and heard before.

In HONOUR, however Ms Murray-Smith, in a brilliant collection of two-handed scenes allows each of these intimates in this familiar domestic tragedy, to argue passionate points of view that allows us, the audience, to be enthralled by the harrowing verbal thrash for these relatively sophisticated persons in search of reason and survival. 

In this small space at the Ensemble Theatre, I found the play was revealed to me with much more clarity than ever  before, and this was despite the weakness in the casting of Ms Ash, as Claudia, who seemed to me to lack both the physical and intellectual lust of this recklessly ambitious woman who chameleon-like can shape shift her actions with such blade-sharp accuracies to justify her actions throughout her encounter with this family. A clever family that becomes devastated.

Mr Higginson creates a brilliant, elder man helplessly entranced by a youthful siren who can sing and dance the right tunes of flattery to cause him to abandon easily, ruthlessly, all his good sense and life balance for us to suspect that it was always a veneer that cloaked a cruel streak of cold-hearted selfishness cured in misogyny. Beside him, Ms Bell radiates a woman of much hidden strength and ultimate goodness as she navigates the wreckage of her life to arrive at an end that is independent and heading for blossoming fulfilment. It is a warmly intelligent reading of the role. Too, Sophie, has cause to grow up swiftly in a tempestuous sea of moral challenges, that are wonderfully juggled by Ms Lynch in scenes that are mostly of a fragile delicacy of uncharted discovery.

Higginson, Bell and Lynch, are marvellous, attractive to observe. 

The set by Simone Romanuik does not serve the actors comfortably on its different levels that are sharp edged and squashed, nor does it successfully convey a metaphor to enlarge the content  or environments of the play with its Ikea-like unfinished chipboard colours, despite the gesture of the tower of shelves of books (that, with thought during the night, appear to be mostly inaccessible). Damien Cooper lights this space as empathetically as this design allows. While the composition of the music and structure of the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson is sensitive and resonant.

HONOUR, at the Ensemble was an okay night, rescued by wonderful acting by Higginson, Bell and Lynch, and despite the weakness in the casting of Claudia the catalyst of the play's raison d'etre.

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