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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Five Finger Exercise, a Play by Peter Shaffer, Reviewed


First performed in 1958, this is a play of its time. I’m not sure the modern generation would understand the subtleties of the upper middle class family and its seething social and class tensions. The addition of the German tutor as a fulcrum for change, so short a time after the war, would nowadays not have the power and relevance it must have had for an audience of the day. Of course, those of my own generation, and earlier, would appreciate these factors, but whether the play could be enjoyed by a younger audience is open to debate.

In the written text, there’s an ambiguity surrounding the relationship between the tutor and the son that could hint at homosexuality. But the resolution of this in performance would be dependent on the actors playing those parts and the direction they were given, and I’m still unable to decide whether their attempt at friendship is platonic or subconsciously sexual.

Employing a girl developing into early womanhood as the object of the young tutor’s teaching, enclosed, as they are, in a tight and intimate setting, would now be seen through different eyes. In fifties England, paedophilia was a taboo subject and one not considered for public exposure or discussion as it now is. Again, the playwright may have had ulterior motives and may have been adding a layer of complexity to the plot by suggesting a sexual longing on behalf of the daughter. Certainly she develops a crush on her tutor, and this, once perceived by the mother, is a cause for the older woman’s jealousy, since she also fancies herself in love with the young man. But the crush may have been intended as no more than the sort of puppy love displayed by young girls for objects of devotion, without the sexual connotation it would inevitably acquire for today’s audience.

The relationship between the businessman father and the social climbing mother with artistic pretentions is almost clich├ęd, though here it is rescued from that fate by making the woman of French origin. The tensions formed by her sensitivity and his pragmatism, especially as these pertain to the raising of the son, are classic in their portrayal. The fight about his education at university, studying English Literature, instead of taking the route of practical apprenticeship in his father’s furniture business, is so well drawn that it may well be based on the author’s own experience. I don’t know whether that’s the case, however. This sort of conflict, where the mother wants her son raised to appreciate the finer things in life and the father wants him to be moulded into his own image in order to carry on the business, is a fairly common element of fiction and drama or the era.

This is a play about class war, the then prevalent theme of the war between the sexes, prejudice regarding nationality, and the ever-present conflict between those who make money and those who merely spend it. Whether it would work for a contemporary audience I couldn’t say. Certainly, however, if it were to be performed locally, I’d attend. As a study of the times, this is an excellent example of drama, and, given the pedigree of the creator, is as   well written as you’d expect. I enjoyed it.

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