A story before its time
In the 1960s, EM Forster saw little reason to publish his 1914 novel, ‘Maurice’; its themes seemed risqué, its writing dated, and readers would inevitably be uninterested. Instead, he addresses his book ‘to a happier time’, perhaps even a time in which the ideas of the novel are formed into a play… an eerie yet thrilling thought, now that the ideas of the novel are put on display for the world to witness.
Published posthumously, the passing of time may have blinded Forster to the merits of his own novel, but its message of social and self-acceptance resonates especially with Cambridge culture today. Directed by Ell Aitken, the team at the Corpus Playroom revisit the story in the form of a sensitive and touching period drama, bringing to life the journey of a young, middle class man searching for an identity in Edwardian England.
The first half of the play started with great gusto and I was transfixed by its format, interspersing Maurice Hall’s visits to a hypnotist to ‘cure’ his homosexuality with flashbacks to his chaste yet intense romance with his friend, Durham, at Cambridge. This brought an element of creativity and exciting immediacy to the play, crafting a beautiful structure and contributing to a modern tone despite the Edwardian set, costume, accents and dialogue.
Jesper Eriksson’s affable, haughty Durham set the tone for his sexless relationship with Matthew Paul’s Maurice, while later in the play, Sam Drysdale’s Scudder injected an unquestionable passion and plain-speaking sensibility into its fabric. Whereas Maurice’s relationship with upper middle-class Durham is devoid of passion, his later relationship with servant-boy Scudder is electric and intense; making the play about far more than sexuality, but also unquestionably about class and identity-politics. These men are struggling not only with their sexuality, but also with what it means to be ‘a man’ in all senses of the Edwardian perception of gender. Whilst Durham conforms to this, Hall ultimately rejects it; a powerful and beautifully controversial notion. The actors did a fabulous job of portraying this, and Paul’s performance was particularly commendable: a stuttering, nervous Cambridge student, close to tears a lot of the time yet ultimately bold and rebellious in his nature.
The set captured and reflected the scholastic setting of Maurice’s time at Cambridge, interlinking with the dialogue which was delightfully and distinctly British. A chaise lounge was centre-stage, with various bookcases and record-players around the rest of the performance space. Travelling back to the Edwardian age with the actors was an enjoyable experience, and the set combined seamlessly with the costumes and dialogue, heightening the contrast between seemingly modern actions and Edwardian attitudes towards them.
The lighting was also effective; bright white when Hall was speaking to his hypnotist, and warmer colours to indicate a flashback to his past, it helped to differentiate the scenes and structure the play clearly. However, since the set did not change in layout throughout the play, I was a little confused at points as to the characters’ locations, which seemed to chop and change from Cambridge, to a hypnotist’s room, to Durham’s house, without the slightest hint of a rearrangement of furniture – a minor yet important detail. As the play wore on, I felt it lost a little of its charm and sparkle; mannerisms seemed to become slightly repetitive and I felt that the passionate relationship between Maurice and Scudder lost some of its intensity.
Nonetheless, overall, the production demonstrates how far the world has come in freedom of expression: the old-fashioned setting and Edwardian-style clothes seemed to jar with the current nature of the themes, producing a piece of drama which transcends context, time and audience.
The plot felt new, real and tangible whilst retaining clear elements of the past – a difficult yet well-executed balance.
Cover and feature image credits: Charlie Bentley-Astor