Beneath the refined exterior tensions are running highJohannes Hjorth

“It’s basically just lots of posh Londoners sleeping with each other.  What’s not to love?”

And that is A Severed Head, as summed up by director Emer O’Hanlon.  The play, adapted from the Iris Murdoch novel by J.B. Priestly and Murdoch herself, has not been performed in Britain since 1963, which begs the question: why did O’ Hanlon decide to stage Murdoch’s play?

“I wanted to put on this particular play because I think that Iris Murdoch’s novels are this great combination of nice, refined, dinner parties and behind the scenes emotional turmoil.  I remember thinking it was such a shame Iris Murdoch never wrote a play, especially as her dialogue is just delicious, and then I found this adaption of A Severed Head. Imagine my utter delight!”

This is not to say that A Severed Head is just an episode of Made in Chelsea written by someone intelligent.  The play explores much deeper themes, such as changing perceptions of Britishness and gender relations in 1950s England.  Adam Butler-Rushton, says of his character Martin that “he’s a very British character – he’s not comfortable talking about his feelings and his masculinity is a problem for him.  He is interested in what’s going on his head, but he doesn’t want to engage with it once he finds out.” 

His delusions are challenged by Honor, a social anthropologist. Matilda Wickham, who plays Honor, says that she “carries out surgical airstrikes on people’s relationships and makes unpopular decisions for the good of others.  She’s a really refreshing character to engage with – I’d love to be more like her!”

Murdoch normally writes very strong male protagonists, often to the detriment of the female characters - but Honor sounds like a lively exception.  Antonia, Martin’s wife, has previously been portrayed as a archetypal hysterical female, but O’Hanlon’s production changes this.  Bethan Davidson, who plays Antonia, told me that “Emer basically told us to ignore the stage directions and just base our interpretations on the writing. When you look at the dialogue Antonia’s quite an ambiguous character, so I chose to make her a very confident character – she’s larger than life, attention seeking, manipulative, a super drama queen.  She’s so posh, like something out of Noel Coward – I think she says ‘darling’ more than anyone else in the play!”

One thing that is obvious from talking to the cast is that they’re all as enthusiastic about the play as O’Hanlon is.  And after talking to them, it sounds like the audience should be just as excited for first night on Tuesday, especially as I have been told in strictest confidence that a samurai sword is involved somehow.

A Severed Head is running from 12th-16th May at the Corpus Playroom.

Johannes Hjorth's photographs of the dress rehearsal can be found here.

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