The Orange Tree continues its season of rarely performed Victorian and Edwardian plays with a revival of this infrequently staged 1908 play by John Masefield, who was Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967.
Nan has not been professionally performed in England since 1943 (when it was went under the lengthier title of The Tragedy of Nan). Its a layered and intriguing play while seeming to be a simple tale of the hard life of rural English peasants dominated by backbreaking work and the Church, there is also an aspect of Greek tragedy about it.
The play is set in 1810, on a small tenant farm near the River Severn. Nan, played by Katie McGuinness, lives with her aunt and uncle; her father has been hung for stealing a sheep and her mother is dead. Her aunt hates Nan and believes the girl to be tainted by her fathers crimes, as such spoils her own daughter Jenny, while meeting out cruel punishments to Nan.
A party is set to be thrown, and the object of Nan’s affection and her only real chance of escape Dick Gurvil will be there. Katie McGuiness is excellent in the central role, she plays Nan with an interesting blend of passivity and almost petulant anger; she manages to capture Nan’s sense of futility even when fate seems to intervene on her behalf.
From a historical perspective, the play is fascinating. It explores the horrors of the penal system in 1810, the fact that so many people were hung for trivial acts and the frequent miscarriages of justice. Masfield uses the character of Gaffer Pearce, played here by Trevor Martin, to add an element of classical pathos to this discourse. His crazy, grief filled speeches drive the unhappy Nan along a different path, and Martin plays him with sufficient gravity to balance his craziness without ever turning him into a fool.
The cast all give strong performances. The only false note comes from Edward Bennett, as Gurvil. Though funny and engaging in the marvelous Diana of Dobson’s, he is miscast here, and come across as far too knowing for the role of a simple village swain.
The Orange Tree is an in-the-round theatre and as such the audience is very close to the action indeed, something that enhances the audiences experience considerably. In a space of this nature, there is little room for elaborate sets, but with Orange Tree regular Auriol Smith directing no atmosphere is lost.
Despite elements of gentle farce, Nan is a fairly worthy play. It addresses some somber themes and manages to do so in a thought provoking way, but it does not always wholly convince as a piece of theatre. The play often seems to be tugging in several directions at once and is a little heavy-handed in its execution. Yet, though it cant match the heights of Diana Of Dobsons it is a satisfying entry into what has been a fascinating and ambitious season of theatre. The Orange Tree must once again be congratulated for putting on works that few other venues are attempting.