A Room with a View – Mark Nagle puts the fun back into E.M. Forster. (Theatre Reveiew)

A Room With A View

The Genesian Theatre Company

2 February – 9 March You can grab your tickets here. 

Images: Grant Fraser

In 2003, when she had only completed two of her marvelous novels, Zadie Smith wrote a lovely piece in the guardian (you can read it here) asking why we don’t care much for E.M.Forster. She expresses an experience similar to my own, that she adored A Room with A View as a child (age eleven) but ‘discovered’ that it was not a very good novel when she studied serious literature. She was taught the problems are manifold. Something about all those characters getting into ‘muddles;’ Forsters chaotic approach to story structure itself; He gets a bit too ‘romancey;’ Then there is all that awkward gay-ness that he can’t help but project. The Merchant Ivory films didn’t help either, flattening him out and tidying him up. Still, none of this stopped me loving A Room with A View and I read it over and over as a girl projecting myself into the character of Lucy Honeychurch, somehow sensing that she was just like me.

Now The Genesian Theatre have brought A Room With A View to their 2019 program and slipped it in at Mardi Gras. The timing of this move reveals a great deal of wit that Mark Nagle includes in his stylings as director of this production. In watching this current stage manifestation of A Room with a View, more of E.M. Forster comes to the fore, including a remarkably progressive grasp of oppression under patriarchy. Previously unfashionable because Lucy is transformed by love, our modern ethics of inclusion and understanding are not so offended by this concept today, and A Room with A View becomes more of what Edward Forster intended all along – that manners and class should never stand in the way of female development or self-expression. As it stands at The Genesian theatre then, A Room with A View becomes a symbol of its modernist principles and reveals why a young straight religious girl writing her important thoughts in a journal every day might find some hope in Lucy Honeychurch. Sure, she’s straight, but you’ll never see a better example of a young woman forced to lift herself out of problems of her own making than Lucy.

Add to all this unnecessary justification and you have so much hope for humanity in A Room with A View. A perfect evocation of feminine joi de vivre, even Charlotte Bartlett (A very dignified Anna Desjardins) comes good and does her best to learn from her errors. Director Mark Nagle brings a joy and vividness to this production that’s missing from the famous film. I’d forgotten how funny the book is, something the play is able to manifest properly. Karyn Hall’s exacting Elanor Lavish becomes more persuasive school marm which adds a dimension of cheeky wit to her connection to Charlotte. The friendship between the women, beautifully wrought by each actress, makes for a hysterical development that catches Lucy and the audience by surprise. Equally so the bumbling social faux pas of Mr Emerson, reveal not just a kind an open heart but a man of little tact, in the very capable hands of Christopher Dibb. In Italy the rivalry for authenticity set up between Mr Beebe (Tristan Black) and Mr Eager (James Moir) is one of immunity and principles with Tristan Black’s Mr Bebe exhibiting a freedom within religion in his own right. They are posited against ‘Italian’s who drive them’ where a delightfully fun Cris Bocchi becomes the point of contention and the symbol of freedom to which Lucy will aspire.

Moving over to Windy Corner, Mark Nagle continues to evoke the joy and happiness apparent in the novel. Clever set changes allow for a complete mood transformation and the audience adjusts for the transition to England easily. Lynn Roise is a warm and delightful Mrs Honeychurch who elegantly casts her best line “Is it a person or a thing when Freddy plays?” with character and a joyful acceptance that women can always be relied upon to make the best of a bad situation. She is properly set against an understated yet worldly wise Ravel Balkus as Freddy Honeychurch who really comes to life after the infamous bathing scene. The most important addition at Windy Corner is Cecil Vyse, that dignified yet coldest of creatures who becomes so important to Lucy’s ability to allow herself to be transformed by art. Valentin Lang brings his own evocation to the role, never daunted by the shadow of his famous predecessor from the film. His Cecil is lost, confused and trying his best. This calls forth the warmth with which Mark Nagle imbues this production that one senses is close to Edward Forster’s original vision. He is posited against Joshua Shediak as George Emerson who plays an absurd George, confused by a world that can’t see beauty and joy. Joshua Shediak wears a blank expression that occurs as a canvass searching for the right painter. Finally, Phoebe Atkinson is a delightful Lucy Honeychurch, exhibiting all the stages of her growth and development in a subtle yet genteel performance that brings much gravitas to the lead role.

Mark Bell and Mark Nagle have put together a thoughtful set that properly takes advantage of the stunning surrounds of the Genesian Theatre. The space morphs perfectly from an Italian church (complete with carriages for the barley field picnic) to Windy Corner and the sacred lake. Art festoons the walls around the stage and the Stained-glass windows are brought out from behind their curtain for the occasion. Susan Carveth puts together beautiful costumes that properly evoke period in their design. Productions values like Michael Schell’s Lights and Martin Gallagher’s sound enhance the energy of the Mark Nagle vision and combine to have us believe we are in a sunny field, a bustling square or a leafy glade.

I’d forgotten how much I loved A Room with A View. This production at the Genesian theater above all else, was funny and very heartwarming. I left feeling joyful, energized and determined to find out why we don’t all put E.M. Forster productions on our stages. I have come to see that it takes a very special kind of theatre to do him justice – the right balance of polish and spirit. The Genesian Theatre have done well to place A Room with A View on their stage during Mardi Gras, and particularly with their choice of director in Mark Nagle. This production put a big smile on my face that took days to fade. A most delightful night at the theatre.