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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, adapted by Jane Rogers

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BBC Radio 4, 3-17 January 2010
 
Set in well-to-do New York and European society of the early twentieth century, Nadia Molinari's adaptation of The Custom of the Country told the story of Undine Spragg (Rebecca Night), a ruthless operator from the provinces who was prepared to stop at nothing to achieve her social ends. Constructed as a series of verbal battles, the narrative showed how she adopted a series of chameleon-like strategies; she could be all things to all people. Thus she pretended to be loving to the wide-eyed idealist Ralph (Dan Stevens) while at the same time trying to convince him to do everything she pleased. Although married to Ralph, she flirted openly with the lecherous middle-aged rake Van Degan (William Houston) in the hope of obtaining financial preferment. Eventually she threw off both of them and took up with a rich European Count (Joseph Kloska). whom she treated with equal indifference. Undine's real soul-mate was the oleaginous Elmer Moffatt (Tom Hollander), who genuinely believed that money could buy anything - and anyone - and who treated people like pawns in his great game. In Hollander's performance, he resembled a snake in the grass, placing unnatural emphasis on his sibilants. 
 
In one sense, The Custom of the Country rehearses familiar themes characteristic of Wharton's more well-known work, as well as that of Henry James - the gap separating New York high society from the rest of the United States, and the clash between 'new' and 'old' worlds experienced by Americans in Europe. Undine is particularly aware of this conflict; while hankering after the prestige associated with the Europeans, she makes little or no effort to empathize with them. The historical treasures of Italy and France mean nothing to her; at one point in Molinari's production she referred to a morning spent in the "Lewver" (her idiosyncratic pronunciation of the Louvre) simply to pass the time before luncheon.
 
As the action unfolded, however, so our view of Undine changed. In the first episode of this three-part adaptation, she seemed nothing more than a gold-digger. Once she had decamped to Europe, however, she seemed more and more concerned with escaping from the stultifying world of convention - whether European or American - that threatened to engulf her. If the dead hand of European tradition meant little to her, so did the self-enclosed milieu of New York society. She could have pursued a third option by marrying Elmer. but she realized quite rightly that this would reduce her to nothing more than a commodity.  By the third episode Undine seemed to be twisting and turning this way and that, in a desperate search for self-expression, unwilling to take any notice of the advice offered to her that "nobody makes trouble if you know the ropes" - in other words, respect the conventions that help to sustain the social status quo both in Europe and America. She remained a black sheep, desperate to become an ambassador's wife - and shoot straight to the top of the social tree - but unable to do so as she had already obtained a divorce. The ending was somehow inconclusive - rather like Undine's own life - but we nonetheless sympathized with her, even though realizing that she had in a sense contributed to her own fate.
 
 

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