Friday, 12 February 2016

5 Reasons to See Peter Shaffer's “Five Finger Exercise”

The Harringtons in happier times.
Like Jamie Glover I harbour ‘an admiration bordering on obsession’ for Peter Shaffer’s ‘Five Finger Exercise’. Here’s why:

1) Cannibals in the drawing room
Watching middle class families being beastly to each other can be enormous fun, especially if you sympathise with one family member in particular. When I first saw the play in the 1970s, I imagined I was Clive, the ‘damaged’ but oh so witty and clear seeing son. Now I think I might be stolid Mr Harrington offering unwanted careers advice, or perhaps Mrs Harrington with her plastic gilt complex.

2) The Fifties are baffling for millenials
If the Harringtons are mis-understood, the decade in which they live must be completely baffling for millennials. Unlike the swinging sixties, the strike-bound seventies and the new wave eighties, the fifties are not so easy to label. Five Finger Exercise is valuable because it showcases the aspirations and fashions of the Fifties. One must keep up appearances, get in with the right people, and, above all, avoid making a fool of oneself.

3) The Harringtons look like a model family from a knitting pattern
At the Coronet, the Harringtons are buttoned up in beautiful knitwear, a manly chunky knit for Mr Harrington, the softest cashmere cardigan for Mrs Harrington, and a charcoal grey 'V' neck jumper for their disturbed son Clive. Daily family life in the fifties was often very organised. That’s why the Harrington mère and père spend so much time ordering their children and the tutor up and down the stairs. What matters is getting up on time, eating breakfast, putting on a nice jumper or cardigan, going out and coming back on time, going to bed and starting all over again. When Mr Harrington refuses to eat his kippers for breakfast, you know that the family is close to breakdown.

4) Mothers and sons and fathers and daughters
Families make good drama, and Mrs Harrington and her son Clive spring from a long line of famous Greek, Russian, French and Danish mothers and sons. Jamie Glover notes that the play has much in common with Coward and Rattigan. The Harrington children keep each other amused by acting out gouty colonels and young gels, just as Judith Bliss and her family like to tease their guests by play acting in ‘Hay Fever’. Clive can be as witty as Algernon from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. “I was a complete success as a baby”, gets one of the biggest laughs.

The New York Times references Cocteau, Chekhov, and The Bacchae. Clive can be as lonely as Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull. The tenderest moment in the ‘The Seagull’ is when Konstantin’s mother dresses his self-inflicted head wound. With this image in mind, it’s unsettling to watch Pamela, the Harrington daughter, kneeling to have her headband tied for her, first by her brother, and later by her father.

5) Sex without love is nothing
There is a lot of sex in ‘Five Finger Exercise’. When Mrs Harrington admires Walter’s hands, it seems she is not just thinking about his piano playing. But, as friend of mine asked, “Does Mrs Harrington really want to seduce Walter?”. I don’t think so. What Mrs Harrington wants is to be loved and appreciated, on her terms. Walter makes his near fatal mistake when he asks Mrs Harrington if “she thinks it’s possible to find a new mother?”. This is not the role Mrs Harrington has chosen for herself. She is the Empress, and she commands her husband to dismiss Walter. Clive probably wants to seduce Walter, but Walter tells him that "sex without love is nothing". It’s one of the many ironies of 'Five Finger Exercise' that Walter, who is the object of so much passion, has the least interest in sex.

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