Resurrecting a ‘forgotten’ classic
David Hennessy spoke to Brian Martin and Andrew Maunder who are currently bringing Kate O’Brien’s Distinguished Villa back to the London stage after almost 100 years.
Finborough Theatre’s current production of Distinguished Villa by Kate O’Brien is a rare staging of the play in London since it was first a hit at the Aldwych Theatre in 1926.
Born in 1897 in Limerick, Kate O’Brien was the most successful Irish female novelist of the 1930s and 1940s.
Her first novel Without my Cloak was an Irish multi-generational story that sold 50,000 copies and won the James Tait Black Prize and the Hawthornden Prize.
She followed this with best sellers like The Lady.
But it was the success of her play Distinguished Villa that gave her the confidence to pursue writing as a career.
Like her later work, her debut play dealt with the lives of women of the time and their choices, or lack of them.
It was also notable for looking at the lives of ordinary people. ‘The sins of the suburbs’, read one headline at the time.
It is perhaps her fame as a novelist that is the cause of the play being ‘forgotten’ and not staged in almost 100 years in London.
Producer Andrew Maunder of Aardwark Theatre told The Irish World: “It’s exciting to bring it back.
“Kate O’Brien isn’t forgotten.
“She’s quite a well known author, particularly in Ireland but in the UK as well.
“But she’s well known as a novelist rather than as a dramatist, but the play was her first piece when she wrote it in 1926 when she was in her 20s.
“I guess because she was a novelist, the drama aspect has been forgotten.
“She didn’t write many more plays. She focused on novels.
“I just kind of came across it and then I thought It sounded quite interesting.
“To take it from words on a page, and seeing it actually kind of living, speaking, breathing, people talking the words, it’s really good and satisfying to see.”
Rathfarnham actor Brian Martin, who has acted in London productions of Juno and the Paycock and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, reveals he knew nothing of this work until this production came about.
Brian says: “I’ve never heard of this play before.
“I studied drama in Trinity for four years before coming over here, and we studied all sorts of playwrights and everything, but her name never came up.
“We assume we know all the great stuff and we’ve taken it all along with us.
“But I just wonder, is it the fact that she’s a woman?
“Is that more reason to have forgotten it?
“There must be even more great works by women out there to find.
“I worked with Andrew here before.
“He sent through the email for this and I read the script, and I was just in love with it from the get go.
“The fact there was an Irish gay woman in Brixton writing this play, went straight to the West End- You wouldn’t even hear of that happening today or I don’t know when that last ever happened.
“I was in love with the play and very enthusiastically wrote back to Andrew, ‘I really want to audition for this’.
“And luckily I’m here.
“It’s an absolute joy and pleasure to bring it back to life.
“And this is the perfect venue to do it.”
The story of Distinguished Villa centres around the house of Mabel and Natty as well as their two lodgers Frances and Gwen who happens to be Mabel’s sister.
When the play starts it is clear that Mabel is a proud housewife and Natty seems happy for her to prioritise her home and looking ‘refined’ even above his needs and wants. Mabel would like to call their home ‘Distinguished Villa’ while Natty knows how pretentious that is.
At the play’s outset Alec Webberley is calling around to try to romance Frances and is undeterred by her refusals while Gwen is engaged to John.
However, later on in the piece feelings have grown between Frances and John while Gwen has found out she is pregnant with Alec’s child.
With Alec unwilling to take responsibility, Gwen must tell John the child is his but it will be the end of anything between him and Frances.
At the same time Natty suffers some kind of breakdown. The pressure of maintaining the façade of being happy with his life has got to him and he can go on no more, pleading with his wife ‘I am tired’.
The play is ahead of its time. It seems modern by today’s standards but in 1926 Kate O’Brien had women onstage talking about issues like premarital sex and pregnancy while mental health was something that was not even spoken about.
“I think it felt very modern,” Brian, who plays John, says.
“That’s why I was so surprised reading it, in particular about the mental health stuff because everything that is said there just feels right at home with today.
“It doesn’t feel dated, even the wording of it.
“I’m sure loads of people will come and be able to relate to that aspect of it.
“That was the emotional hook for me, the fact that he says that.
“And I think all the stuff about the women getting pregnant and talking about premarital sex…”
Andrew continues: “The original version was even more outspoken than that.
“The Gwen character talks about how she doesn’t want to be a mother and that seemed quite revolutionary, shocking at the time because women were supposed to be wives and mothers.
“But the idea that a young woman has sex outside marriage and seems to be able to kind of shrug it off and didn’t seem to be bothered or guilty about it, that seemed quite shocking at the time.”
Finborough are putting on the same production that was staged and published in 1926 but that version was somewhat censored so the ‘original’ version that Andrew talks about would have been different from the originally staged version.
Andrew continues: “The Natty character, I guess he’s what psychiatrists would call a smiling depressive.
“He seems perfectly fine on the outside but underneath, he’s kind of desperate. In a way he’s kind of ground down by his life.
“People seem alright but they’re not really alright.”
Mabel is the voice of the society of the time, not shy to give the young ladies advice on how to act like they are just that and also what is and is not becoming of a ‘gentleman’.
“There’s a kind of generational clash somehow going on there,” Andrew says.
“Mabel represents the old kind of almost Victorian ideas about respectability whereas the younger women are less attached to that, slightly more modern in their attitudes.”
Brian adds: “I think it’s great as well that it’s an older female character saying to younger female characters, it’s not just that typical man tells a woman how to be.
“We have that in the play, especially from the Alec character and you kind of get that from all the male characters, it’s still of its time.
“But to have the older female character, she’s been so indoctrinated by society at the time: This is what she believes in and she tries to pass that down and there’s kind of revolt.
“I think that’s great, just as an extra layer to it.
“It’s not as black and white, I think every character has kind of shades of grey.
“My character John is kind of seen to be the love interest in the story and he’s very passionate and he loves his poetry, but he still lashes out and he still has a temper.
“Or Frances’ character, she does have her progressive values, but at the same time, she can be quite rude and brash with the older characters.
“The writer is not afraid, she doesn’t show just good or bad.
“There’s no black and white moral compass, every character is so well shaded.
“Every actor is so satisfied playing every role because they’re so well fleshed out and really fun to play.
“There’s so much to find in the writing, there’s lots of subtext to be found there and to play around with as an actor, which is really fun.
“Because when you first read it, it’s not always obvious what’s going on.
“There’s lots of speeches that might, on the surface sound the same, like you’re saying the same thing over and over.
“There’s actually loads of nuance in there and it takes a brave writer to be able to trust the actor to kind of figure that out for themselves.”
The Irish World was reminded of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen which was ground breaking in its social commentary on issues like feminism, we can’t help thinking that here Kate O’Brien is saying something about similar themes like the role of women and the only difference here is that in this story it is the husband that is driven to something drastic.
Brian says: “It is showing the constraints of marriage on both women and men.
“If polyamory and condoms existed at the time, we wouldn’t have this play.
“It’s because there’s no option to leave your marriage.
“Once you’re committed to something, once you’re engaged- In the case of John’s character from a week in, he’s engaged to this woman and that’s his commitment for life.
“That’s a huge comment.
“It’s a comment against the institution of marriage, I think, in a way is how restrictive the whole thing is, and how these expectations from society and how you behave in a relationship are as well, there’s no freedom.
“And that’s why my final line, I think, is really powerful, ‘Things like this are done slowly’.
“We take away the human element from ourselves through all of these kinds of constructed institutions that we create.
“’Our methods are refined in Distinguish Villa’. which is quite a dark thing to say.
“These are dark, refined methods we have of slowly squeezing the life out of people over the course of their life.”
Andrew adds: “But polite methods anyway, everyone’s very polite, and no one really says what they mean until the end really.
“Manners are what seems to matter no matter what’s happening underneath.”
Brian adds: “I wonder if it took an outsider coming in to see that, how much would Irish society in the 20s have been like London society as well?
“I don’t know if it would have been the same in the 20s, her being an outsider help to unveil all that stuff and to put a mirror to society and put it back to the English people, ‘This is how you’re behaving’.”
Andrew continues: “It kind of veers between comedy and serious stuff seamlessly so the first half is quite comedic and then it gradually gets darker and darker as it goes on.
“Towards the end, it’s quite hard to know how to read it because sometimes the audience laugh in places in the middle of a serious scene so there’s still that kind of slightly shifting all the time between something which makes you laugh and something which is really kind of sad and grim at the end.”
Brian adds: “We had gasps tonight which was great.
“That means people really care and are invested in the story.
Kate O’Brien wrote Distinguished Villa when a friend challenged her to write a play.
When it opened, it was called a masterpiece and much was made of the fact that it had been written by a secretary.
O’Brien also got congratulations from Sean O’Casey whose The Plough and the Stars was also running in the West End at the same time.
Andrew says: “He wrote to her congratulating her saying that Dublin and Limerick had arrived in London together, or they conquered London or something like that.”
Although Distinguished Villa was well received at the time of its opening and went on a national tour before going to Broadway and then the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, it has rarely been seen since.
Although Kate O’Brien wrote further plays such as The Bridge, she was most famous for her novels.
Known as an author with an edge, As Music and Splendour was notable for normalising a lesbian relationship and a number of her novels were banned in Ireland.
In the 1945 film A Brief Encounter a stifled housewife visits a library and asks for ‘the new Kate O’Brien’ which hints to the audience the moral dilemmas that character is about to face.
Kate O’Brien died in 1974.
Distinguished Villa may not have been performed in London for a long time but the playwright’s great niece Kathy Rose O’Brien, an actress who has been nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award, did stage a reading of the play when she was studying at RADA.
Brian says: “Her dad, John O’Brien, was here on Tuesday for our first preview. He flew over from Ireland to see it and it was amazing talking to him.”
Andrew adds: “The family are really proud of her and proud of her work, I think.
“So they would come wanting to see the production and in a sense see what the theatre and what the company have done with it.”
This is not the first revival of an Irish piece Andrew and Brian have worked on for Finborough Theatre.
In 2019 they revived, after 75 years, Jane Clegg by Belfast playwright St John Ervine.
Brian completed his drama training at LAMDA after four years in Trinity and has been in London since 2009.
He has also won awards for his short film, The Cocaine Famine.
At the time he was onstage at Noel Coward Theatre with Aidan Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore and got the well known actor’s support with it.
“I wrote a short film a few years ago when I did Lieutenant of Inishmore, it was about two Irish drug dealers who interrogate a London dealer on the whereabouts of their latest shipment of cocaine.
“It’s a black comedy, and it kind of parallels the story of the potato famine: Just replace the potatoes with cocaine, which are in a boat, white and fluffy and highly addictive.
“I did it at the same time as doing Lieutenant of Inishmore which Aidan Turner was in and Michael Grandage was the director.
“He (Turner)’s such a nice guy and Martin McDonagh is my hero.
“He’s found a way to put ordinary people on stage and show the darkness and the comedy of it all, I think he’s a genius.
“We premiered it (The Cocaine Famine) during that run, and they both saw it and loved it and they very kindly attached their names as executive producers for post-production, gave us loads of money, and we sent it off to film festivals.
“We were in 50 festivals and won seven or eight awards, were nominated for a few more.
“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
“That summer- that play and that film- were two of the most proud things I’ve done.
“I’m so proud of this play, that we’ve mounted this production.
“I want to get this word out to as many Irish people as possible because I think they’d sit here beaming with pride as well.”
Distinguished Villa is at Finborough Theatre until 1 October.
For more information or to book, click here.