Trelawny of the 'Wells'. By Arthur Wing Pinero. Directed by Tony Turner. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. Preview March 29, season March 30-April 9. Tickets: 6257 1950 or canberrarep.org.au.
"This is the kind of chamber I want for the first act of my comedy," says the hopeful young playwright Thomas Wrench, as he admires an aristocratic drawing-room in the second act of Trelawny of the 'Wells'.
"Windows on the one side, doors on the other – just where they should be, architecturally. And locks on the door, real locks, to work; and handles – to turn!"
The audience is simultaneously watching a character long for a realistic stage set – and the actor praising that set.
This trompe l'œil effect is typical of Arthur Wing Pinero's sentimental 1898 comedy about a mid-19th century actress engaged to a judge's son.
Rose Trelawny (played by Alessandra Kron) stars in the plays popular at the time – melodramas with titles like The Hunchback, The Peddler of Marseilles, and The Specter of St. Ives. By the end of the play, she's rehearsing the modern comedy Life – in which she and her estranged lover Arthur Gower (Henry Strand) play fictional versions of themselves. From Pinero, it's only a small step to Pirandello.
The knowing theatricality of the piece is its chief attraction for Tony Turner, directing the play for Canberra Rep.
"It's a sensational play," he says, "because in it we see the beginnings of realism and naturalism and [Konstantin] Stanislavsky."
Turner, former ANU head of drama, has wanted to direct the play for nearly 40 years, because of his interest in the rise of realism before Stanislavsky introduced method acting in the early 1900s.
The play shows the rise in the 1860s of the new naturalistic style of play. Wrench himself (Robert de Fries) is based on Thomas William Robertson, whose "cup and saucer" plays – with their casts drinking actual tea in naturalistic sets rather than posturing in front of painted flats – introduced domestic realism to the British stage.
"Trelawny is a challenge," Turner says. "It was written in 1898, but it's actually set in 1860, when there wasn't any realism on the stage or any naturalism in acting. Because it's supposedly about real-life people, we've got to bring realism and naturalism into a 19th-century style of play. So it's about a bunch of actors who are performing in a theatre based on Sadler's Wells who are very much immersed in the grand melodramas of the 19th century – but in their real lives, of course, they're real people."
Audiences, however, don't need to be theatre-savvy to enjoy the play.
"Essentially it's the old story of boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl again. It's the Hollywood musical," Turner says. "It's sentimental in lots of ways, but it's also very funny; there's lots of moments when I hope the audience will have tears in their eyes."
Of laughter or crying?
"Of both! It's very, very sweet in many ways. But it has all these other layers of what theatre should be, and what theatre's all about."
The play is an impressive undertaking for Rep. It demands four sets (two different rooms in a Clerkenwell lodging-house, Sir William Gower's home in Cavendish Square, and the stage of the Pantheon Theatre) and 22 actors.
"It's a huge cast," Turner says, "and there are lots of smaller parts, which are absolutely essential to the play."
Pinero – a lawyer turned actor – draws on his personal experience to depict aitch-dropping grocers, heavily-whiskered West End swells and the members of the Profession, leading ladies, walking gentlemen, distinguished actors, low comedians, pantomime boys and General Utility.
"He's very good at creating character," Turner says; "not just in the sense that they seem real, but in the sense that they have intentions and agendas."
His eye for the telling detail and the play's social scope – from jolly theatre parties of beer and cold meat to the gentry's snuffy, stuffy games of whist – are almost Dickensian.
"The play looks at the class system, but in a gentle, loving way," Turner says.
The play's complexity may explain why Pinero and his work have largely vanished. He was the leading playwright of his day, and the second man to be knighted for services to drama alone after W.S. Gilbert (another lawyer). Productions since his death in 1934 have been sporadic; film director Joe Wright recently directed the play in London, and it has been resurrected as a vehicle for the likes of Maggie Smith, Sarah Brightman and Meryl Streep.
"Only the major companies can do a play this big," Turner says, "because of the size of the actors and the sets. We're lucky we don't have to pay our actors!"