The Heiress

A finely crafted howl of anguish

Henry James’ Washington Square – and this 1947 stage adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz – is an unusually tightly-written story in which few things actually happen. A young heiress named Catherine (Karen McCartney) avoids marrying a charming fortune-hunter, largely through the intervention of her father, the successful Dr Sloper. After Dr Sloper dies peacefully at home, she quietly asserts her own independence. But that glib reading ignores the swirling mass of pain surrounding the principal characters in The Heiress, and the ways in which that pain so often metastasises into cruelty.

The Coetz’s finest achievement, I feel, is giving a story based almost entirely on its characters’ inner lives dramatic weight through patience, subtlety, and the gentlest exposition. Such an approach depends upon its characters to show the same qualities, of course, and this production largely succeeds. Certainly, the original fountainhead of suffering – the anguish of Dr Sloper (Dennis Conway) over the death of his wife, and consequent bitterness towards his own daughter – is laid out deftly. Conway as Sloper seems initially sympathetic in his cynicism, leavened by humour. The cruel disdain for Catherine, who cannot possibly live up to his idealised version of her mother, only emerges gradually.

Conway’s insightful world-weariness, and capacity to introduce a harsh edge to verbal knockabout, reminds me of his last Gate turn as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Here, though, he’s not jousting with his equals: Sloper is probably the smartest person in the room at any time, and certainly the most powerful, giving his barbs an added menace.

Karen McCartney does a fine and subtle job in showing his daunting effect on Catherine. Her inability to even repeat a funny little anecdote under her father’s withering stare is amusing at first, and quite heartbreaking on reflection. McCartney’s Catherine is not nearly so gauche and graceless as her father imagines – in fact, when freed from his permanently disapproving presence, she can be vivacious, witty, and really quite charming. This adds some welcome ambiguity about the intentions of Mr Townsend (Donal Gallery). It’s not immediately obvious whether Catherine is being pursued by a cynical young man on the make, or something who genuinely sees past her anxieties. Of course, by the time of their abortive elopement, Dr Sloper’s forensic mind has uncovered convincing evidence to support the more cynical view.

Of course, if Townsend is just a dashing young fortune-hunter, does that matter if he will treat Catherine well? That’s a question posed by her widowed aunt, Lavinia (Marion O’Dwyer), who tells (and shows) Catherine that life can be hard for a woman alone in the world. In a lesser production, Lavinia could be trite comic relief: an elderly spinster somewhat smitten by Townsend and blind to his motives. But O’Dwyer imbues her with real insight into what’s happening. When she asks Townsend for assurance that he will treat Catherine well, she’s not asking to be confirmed in a naive notion of what’s happening. Her reaction to his digressions on wealth and luxury wordlessly tell us that she knows what he’s up to. Rather. She’s urging him to approach an essentially transactional relationship in good faith, and at least show kindness to her niece. In this, she displays more sensitivity and pragmatism than the worldly Dr Sloper.

Because of moments like this, I simply cannot agree with Emer O’Kelly that the production lacks psychological probing. For in this version, The Heiress, is more than just a genteel tragi-comedy with a vindictive twist. It’s a meditation on pain, how it shapes us, and how we inflict it on each other. By the play’s end, Catherine has learned cruelty, and inflicts it on the now-ruined Townsend to devastating effect. Jonathan Fensom’s elegant set is particularly effective here, framing Catherine’s revenge perfectly. But if she has the last laugh in this take on The Heiress, it’s certainly a bitter one.


The Gate, until 21 January


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