Great Irish playwrights born two years apart in Dublin both employed paradoxical dialogue to different ends – Oscar Wilde’s gossamer epigrammatic comedies versus George Bernard Shaw’s heavier syllogistic considerations of moral and social problems, often underpinned by lengthy published prefaces.
Shaw’s one-act pieces How He Lied to Her Husband (1904), a farce about adultery in literary circles, and Overruled (1912), a comedy of polygamy, are here delightfully revived by Shavian specialist director Paul Miller. They feel like spiritual sequels to Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest or An Ideal Husband: “Don’t you dare swear in my presence. One would think you were my husband.”
While Shaw, characteristically, devoted 15 pages before the first stage direction of Overruled to a treatise on whether having more than one spouse would actually work in Edwardian society, Miller plays the propositions sharp and fast, focusing on the absurd geometries of human desire.
How He Lied to Her Husband turns on married aristocrat Aurora telling her poet lover, Henry, that her husband, Teddy, has discovered the fervent love verses written in illicit heat. Things get impressively meta for the early 20th-century as the couple fell in love at a production of Shaw’s play Candida. In Overruled, four married people who have agreed to take separate holidays collide at the same hotel, where church vows stretch in a more daring forebear of Coward’s Private Lives.
Two of the cast – Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Jordan Mifsúd – play a different wife or husband in each half, nicely differentiating strategies of vanity and passion. They – and equally impressive colleagues, Joe Bolland, Alex Bhat, and Hara Yannas – strike a heightened, almost spoken-operatic style that hits every joke. A combination of heritage frocks with modern-ish fashion – leather jacket, man-bun, trainers – subtly suggests the line of descent from Wilde and Shaw through Coward to the betrayal games in Harold Pinter’s The Lover.
At the Orange Tree, London, until 26 June. Livestreamed on 3 and 4 June.