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You can see it right now at the Pearl
Welcome to Geek Out Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things.
Through October 30, the Pearl Theatre Company is presenting A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney's 1958 play about Jo, a rowdy, headstrong teenager in working-class England who's trying to make a decent life alongside her equally obstreperous mother, Helen. As they both hunt for love – from each other, from men – and some kind of happiness, they crash together with a force that's still exhilarating almost 60 years later. I've adored this play since I read it in my early 20s, and I recently called Kate Farrington, the Pearl's resident dramaturg and associate artistic director, to geek out with her about its enduring excellence.
Here are the highlights from our conversation:
Mark Blankenship: I don't know about you, Kate, but I love seeing a play about such fantastic female characters. Even in 2016, A Taste of Honey is rare treat.
Kate Farrington: I can't tell you how excited we were to get this play on the roster. When you work in classical theatre you're fighting an uphill battle. [It's the Pearl's mission to produce classic plays from all eras – Ed.] It's a combination of long-standing cultural norms and voices that, because they were female, were sidelined in creating what we think of as "the canon." And before about 1890, even the rare plays by female playwrights don't often highlight the female relationships we might like to see. In anybody's classical theatre, it's so rare to find a mother-daughter relationship like this.
So of course we were interested in this play because it took the world by storm. But also, it's just beautiful how different and personal it is to see a mother and daughter who talk to each other like this, with no holds barred.
MB: Plus, this is a play about working class people where the women are also working class. In many similar scripts, the women are often rich outsiders who get scorned or mistrusted, like in Look Back in Anger or Miss Julie. They're not "authentic" the way the men are. So to see the women in this play just belong so completely to their surroundings, even when they're being hateful, is exciting.
KF: Right! They're both just in it, and there's no grandstanding. And this is something that Shelagh was accused of by people who didn't understand the play. She was just trying to show people as they are. She herself talked about, "I'm tired of seeing Northern, working-class people portrayed as simple or foolish." And she doesn't beat a drum about it. She just portrays these people in exactly the way she believes they would act. It's gorgeous. It's free.
MB: And of course she would know how they sound, because she was from that world herself. It's interesting to remember, like you said, that some people harshly criticized her for the way she wrote, or else they didn't listen closely to what she was saying.
KF: They labeled her the "angry young woman," and it's an odd thing to call her based on this play. It's exactly the opposite of the label I would've given her. Because the idea of her being outraged is not what I see in the play. I see the challenges facing these people in the larger the world, but I see them filtered through affection. I see them filtered through frustration, certainly, but also through affection and sympathy.
MB: I also want to talk about Geoffrey, a friend of Jo's who moves in with her after she gets pregnant. Helen has moved out to live with a man, so Jo's a teenager on her own. But she also has this friend, who just happens be gay. He was one of the first openly gay characters to hit the British stage, and he's a complicated, loving person, not the self-hating victim you might expect to see in a story from this era. I'm very moved by his behavior here, from the way he takes care of Jo to the way he takes care of himself.
KF: I find that character heartbreaking. And I think the audience's ability to understand that character is very different than it was when the play first came out. There's a recognition of his struggle and heartbreak and loneliness in that period that is striking and haunting. I'm never not moved by that character. And I also think that he's the one who shows the greatest compassion. It's just beautiful.
And historically speaking, this was one of the great test cases. In the years before this play came out, the Lord Chamberlain's Office had started to relax its standards about homosexuality's portrayal on the British stage. So the test was, "Is Geoff an acceptable character?" And the actor who played him originally, Murray Melvin, said it was such a gift to be given a character like that at that time.
MB: Regardless of his sexuality, too, there's also his compassion, as you said. I think it teaches us so much about this world that the response everyone has to his compassion is to belittle him.
KF: Is to hurt him through it!
MB: Yes! And that's a great insight from Shelagh Delaney on what happens to you and your ability to love when you've been so beaten down by your life.
KF: Austin Pendleton, [who directs the Pearl's revival], talks about that a lot. That these are characters who can't trust each other, because their experience has always been one of abandonment or neglect. Every one of them. So even when they find someone they love, even when they find someone to cling to, they can't help it. They attack. The assumption is that there will be some kind of betrayal, so they keep pushing it and pushing it. But the two people who break that cycle, in their way, are Jimmie, [a sailor who briefly dates Jo], and Geoffrey. And I think it's interesting that she writes these two characters who are outsiders and who are also trying to break that cycle.
MB: I remembered this stuff about the play, which I hadn't read in years, but when I saw the production at the Pearl, I remembered – oh yeah! – there's also this fantastic structural thing she does. She has a trio of musicians on stage the entire time. They're always around, playing songs to accompany certain scenes, and sometimes, the characters even see the musicians and interact with them.
KF: I love that they move into this apartment that just happens to have a jazz trio included. And this is where the playwright and the director understood each other. When Joan Littlewood, [who directed the original production of the play], got hold of the script, she herself loved music hall stuff. ["Music hall" refers to Vaudeville-style variety shows that were wildly popular in England in the early 20th century. – Ed.]
The music hall style was a common touchstone for an entire world at that point. So when she talked to Shelagh about the script, Joan was the one who suggested live music. And they use that music hall language all the time to diffuse tension. [For instance, when Helen's boyfriend is mocking Jo for being pregnant, he breaks into a saucy little tune.] It's deep, serious issues being treated with the buoyancy of music hall. It feels like the play has this swell under it all the time, this life and energy.
MB: And that keeps the play from being a stern lesson on economics and the working class. This world is suffused with music and jokes and bawdy asides to the audience, so you can't just reduce these people to "angry and poor." They're so much more complicated than that, which is so satisfying.
KF: It's like Shelagh said: "No one in my play despairs." They never give up. They're not capable of that. They soldier on, and they look for the next opportunity for happiness. That's not the grim fatalism of living out your life. It's optimistic. It's alive. And it's universal.
Follow TDF Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at TDFNYC.
Photos by Russ Rowland. Top photo: Rebekah Brockman as Jo and John Evans Reese as Geoffrey.
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