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The French Lieutenant’s Woman

By Cathryn Setz
In a masterstroke of Mark Healy’s adaptation, John Fowles’ classic novel premieres at Yvonne Arnaud this month, plunging the depths of Victorian sensibilities and that old chestnut of patriarchal power
– the Madonna-whore dichotomy.

Set on the sleepy coast of Lyme Regis, FLW is a dark and unraveling tale of the troubled Sarah Woodruff (Kate Odey) as she walks the cliff in misery, and her entanglement to the upright and proper Charles Smithson (Anthony Howell).

Kate Saxon’s formidable direction sees much of the action on a multi-platformed set, conveying both the rocky wilderness of the undercliff and the repressive, even hypocritical piety of the middle-class Victorian home.

The perpetual presence of ‘the writer’ as an added character serves much humour as he tries falteringly to control these creatures of the imagination. George Irving’s performance in this twisting role is fluid, gentle and exacting.

Equally impressive is the robust performance from Anne Kavanagh as Mrs Poulteney, the repugnant do-gooder. Kavanagh appears initially to be overacting with the constant shouting and bible-quotes, yet by the interval her incessant piety chilled me to the bone.

Anthony Howell left me lukewarm. Perhaps it was his style – but for such a wet-end of a man twisting this way and that, it was far more likely the ‘gentleman’ Smithson I came to abhor for his cowardice.

By far the greatest element, however: the ‘Woman’ herself. Other actors could have fallen into the trap of simply portraying a two-dimensional ‘lunacy.’ Kate Odey’s intense knowingness in the part left me reeling, with questions on my lips.

Is she a whore, to be condemned for the unknown and shameful past? Or is she a strong woman, clinging on to her freedom and taking the position of the outcast with dignity?

The Madonna-Whore dichotomy runs right through the play, and Fowles seems to invite a true challenge. The author himself said is better than I ever could. “Mystery and unknowing is why we are alive.”