Primavera prides itself on rediscovering lost classics of the stage. However noble this venture might be for theatrical history, the rediscovered play must have some relevance to today’s audience to merit it’s production and for it to retain its impact. Fortunately, Primavera chose a play with enough looseness in its characters and themes that for the most part, it is amenable to today’s world.The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, for whatever its views are, is a play that invites thought: on the nature of women, on their relationship with men, and on how much our world has actually changed in terms of the battle of the sexes.
The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith brings us a little over a week in the life of Agnes Ebbsmith (Rhiannon Sommers), an aspiring radical leader lecturing on independent living and the disdainful institution of marriage. She lives in Venice in scandal with a married politician, Lucas Cleeve (Max Hutchinson), supposedly as exemplars for woman and man being together, but not as man and wife. The illicit nature of their relationship is upsetting news to their recent acquaintances, widow, Gertrude Thorpe (Julia Goulding) and her clergyman brother, Amos (Richard Beanland). But the siblings’ moral reluctance is not quite enough to keep them away from the intriguing, poor “wretched woman”. Yet Agnes’s life and ambitions take a sudden turn when Lucas’s relatives, specifically the charming old scoundrel, the Duke of St. Olpherts (Christopher Ravenscroft), come to convince him to reunite with his wife and his old career.
While the play has a few bumpy emotional transitions and questionable pictures of female empowerment, most of these issues are mitigated by the talent of the cast. Hutchinson slides smoothly between likeable and detestable, so I was laughing before realizing I might be offended. Similarly, despite the semi-misogynistic, elitist philosophies he spouts, the Duke charms and solidly brings the play back down to earth, cutting through Agnes’s bombastic ranting. As for said notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Sommers slips into a loud, unnatural cadence at times, rendering the character highly unlikeable and seemingly undermining her positions for women’s intelligence and independence. However, in the last third of the show, Sommers comes alive and truly delivers in an engaging and captivating manner. Her character calls for sudden and dramatic changes in attitude and principle; the slight clumsiness of the script is not quite overcome by Sommers, but proves forgivable in the scheme of the show. Lastly, Julia Goulding as Mrs. Thorpe, though falling flat in her emotional reveal, proves to be a steady presence on the stage, smoothly transitioning between strength, moral indignation and comedic timing. In the battle of the sexes, the men prove more charming but the women provide more to think about.
Arthur Wing Pinero’s portrayal of women and women’s rights was moderately progressive for it’s time. Though thought provoking, it does not demand any conclusions about the playwright’s position on the subject. At times, the women are a bit broadly drawn – hysterics or moralizing as their main tone. In today’s age, however, it does still provoke discussion on a woman’s battle between the need for power and the need for emotional satisfaction. Entertaining if not particularly profound, Primavera’s The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith is worth a look for anyone interested in women’s theatrical history or just an enjoyable two and a half hours.