Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Springs Eternal, Orange Tree

Review: Springs Eternal, Orange Tree

Published in the Telegraph, 17.09.2013

Forty-two years ago, Sam Walters founded the Orange Tree Theatre with an eye to the future, introducing London to radical playwrights like James Saunders and Vaclav Havel. Britain’s longest-serving artistic director has a reputation for theatrical archaeology: Walters, who leaves the theatre next year, is happiest when dusting off some brittle, buried curio or other.

Neglected American playwright Susan Glaspell – 1931’s Pulitzer Prize winner – has been a major beneficiary of his archival trawling. The Orange Tree has already staged four of her plays, more than any other theatre in the world, and now Walters’ final season kicks off with a world premiere of her last play, unpublished and unperformed in 70 years.

Written in 1943, two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Springs Eternal is a living room drama that serves as an opinion poll on America’s involvement in the war. Its centre is Owen Higginbothem, a disillusioned academic who has retreated into the past, abandoning the writing of future-facing political tracts to study archaic languages. He blames himself and his generation for the war, as men – among them his housemaid’s son – march off to fight for the ideals he once espoused.

Yet, at the same time, he bemoans his own son’s conscientious objection and is enthralled by the war stories of a local doctor, newly returned from the North African campaign and disdainful of civilian life.

Owen is a fascinatingly conflicted character, his gruff intelligence effortlessly expressed by Stuart Fox, but he’s trapped in a woefully misshapen, unfocused play. Glaspell’s argument, as the title implies, is about the loss and location of hope, but it’s clouded by a tangle of tangents. The whole play is wrenched out its orbit by a subplot so convoluted it borders on incomprehensibility: Owen’s son’s girlfriend seems to be planning an elopement with his first wife’s second husband. It leaves Springs Eternal running at a gruelling three hours and even Glaspell’s more robust ideas feel rambling and rudderless as a result.

Walters gives it a typical Orange Tree staging, neither hindered nor helped by being in-the-round, and his cast perform with both brio and meandering accents. Julia Hills holds the whole together as Owen’s pragmatic second wife, while Auriol Smith has moments of piercing tenderness as the maid whose motherly concern bursts through as she carries out her tea duties. Even so, this is a collector’s item of a play; interesting in parts but arduous altogether.

Photograph: Alistair Muir

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