Director Howard Davies admits at first he rather resisted the idea of reviving W Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered (Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until September 5).
“I had never read any Somerset Maugham before, but I was handed this play by the literary critic at the National Theatre three years ago who said ‘You should read this play.’
“It lay on my desk for three months. I was asked if I had read it, and I said ‘No, come on, Somerset Maugham is really not my kind of thing at all’, and he said ‘I think you are being silly!’
“I was so piqued by his response that I went away and read it!”
And Howard was hooked: “I just found it very modern and very sharp, and it has got fantastic women characters. A lot of male writers these days don’t write for women that well, but Somerset Maugham floods the stage with these brilliant female characters. And because the play is so politically anti-war, anti the damage done by war to the people and to the social fabric, it was a play that seemed very relevant.
“But I don’t think this play has been done for a long time. I couldn’t persuade the National Theatre to do it, but when I spoke to (CFT artistic director) Jonathan Church, he just leapt at it. I think the National just fell into the way of thinking that it was too fusty and too of its period, too much about tennis and tea.
“And yes, there is a lot of that world because that’s the world he has to portray, the lower-middle classes and their country pursuits, but he portrays that world so he can smash through it. He has to portray that conventional background so he can unravel it.”
For men long returned from World War One, life is still changed forever. Some are struggling with life-changing injuries, while others are fighting to adapt to a vastly-altered working world.
The play is set in 1932, a place these former heroes have not been prepared for, where debt, redundancy and depression form a constant threat. Meanwhile, life for the women around these returned fighters is just as troubled…
As Howard says, one of the characters is a soldier blinded by the war: “I think these days we are much more aware of the fact that the armed forces had a heavy toll through what happened to them in Afghanistan and so on. Back in the ’50s, there was a feeling that the Second World War was over and that we had never had it so good, that there would not be any future wars. Now terrorism reminds us that that is not true.”
For Howard, the production is a return to the Minerva where he staged – to a mixed response – The House of Special Purpose, a play about the fate of the Russian royal family.
“I thought the play was very unfairly treated by the national theatre critics. I thought it was very well written, but I have witnessed this before where someone who has been very successful as a television writer writes for the theatre, and the national theatre critics turn round and say ‘Hold on, I don’t think you can do this!’ But I thought it worked very well – until I was told by the critics that it didn’t. When that happens, you have to take the blame. You can’t just blame the writer. You have to think about what you could have done differently. But I think in the end, it was simply that the play was very unfairly treated.”
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