BBC Radio 3, 6 October 2013/ Librivox.com, 13 April 2013
Written in 1892, Widowers'
Houses remains as important today as it was when it was first performed, with its focus on the ways in which capitalists
exploit the poor for profit. Mr. Sartorius has made his money through collecting rents; when he is presented with the
prospect of making more money by his former employee Lickcheese, he is faced with the dilemma of how to reconcile his desire
for profit with his genuine concern for his tenants. His conflicts with Harry Trench, an idealistic doctor seeking to
marry Sartorius' daughter Blanche, only serve to exacerbate those dilemmas.
Martin Jarvis' production for Radio 3, first broadcast
in 2011, approached the play as a character-driven melodrama. Ian McKellen's Sartorius came across as a Priestleyesque
capitalist (reminiscent of Arthur Birling in An Inspector Calls), living a comfortable existence, while being
blissfully unaware of the sufferings of his tenants. Moneymaking was second nature to him - so much so that he found
little difficulty in dealing with Harry Trench's (Dan Stevens') criticisms. However Sartorius' complacency received
an abrupt jolt, once he encountered Lickcheese (Tim Pigott-Smith). In the past he had treated Lickcheese with contempt
(how else should he treat an employee?), but now Lickcheese had made money (and hence threatened Sartorius' position), Sartorius
had to treat him with more courtesy. As they talked, it became obvious that they were representatives of a dog-eat-dog
world in which morality had little significance: power depended solely on financial clout.
Jarvis' production re-emphasized this lack
of morality through Honeysuckle Weeks' performance as Blanche. Her treatment of the servant Jessie (Siobhan Hayes) was
breathtakingly callous; it was clear that anyone socially inferior to her did not deserve any politeness. In her encounters
with Trench, Blanche proved equally indifferent - although she had to respect her father's wishes, it was clear that she lacked
any capacity to love anyone on their own terms.
In the end we felt that in this kind of society, it was smart operators such as Lickcheese
who deserved our admiration. Not only did he manage to deal with the trauma of being sacked by Sartorius, but he eventually
turned the tables on his one-time employer. Pigott-Smith's vocal characterization contained strong echoes of Uriah Heep
- a protean figure who could act "'umble" where necessary, but only to suit his own ends.
While those volunteers who have
made the efforts to record Widowers' Houses for Librivox deserve congratulation, their performances lack vocal
colour. They have simply taken Shaw's text and read it almost verbatim, including stage-directions. This recording
- available on ITunes as well as through the Librivox site - might be useful for those reading the play for the first time,
but doesn't really pass as entertainment.