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Saturday, 19 January 2013

Play With a Tiger, By Doris Lessing, Reviewed.


One thing that can be said with little fear of contradiction is that Doris Lessing's work is anything but simple and straightforward. She loves to wrap her characters and plots in multiple layers, through which the reader must pick his way, often with only minimal guidance as to direction and even, sometimes, intent.

Play With A Tiger was first performed at the Comedy Theatre, London, on 22nd March 1964 and is set in the city. Whilst it's very much a play of its time, it nevertheless carries some of its themes fairly well into the modern day. Attitudes to unmarried mothers have changed for many, political normality has become anything but, and extramarital affairs are now so commonplace as to be almost expected, but the war of the sexes continues, for some, at any rate.

As Anna and Dave reconstruct their pasts and possible futures, their dialogue exposes their sometimes opposing, sometimes similar stances. The descriptive passages that take them back in time explore their development as people and depict the lives of their parents and families in ways that explain, to some extent, the way they are now. But there is an underlying tone of self-absorption and mutual distrust that was, as I recall, a very common situation for men and women at the time. I'm not convinced it is any better now than it was then, but the development of family planning aids has definitely made things different for the single woman in search of love without the wish to raise a family. This aspect of the relationship between men and women is so different now that modern audiences may have difficulty understanding the dilemma facing maturing women back in those early days of burgeoning sexual freedom.

Dave is careless and unaware of the reality of the effect of his philandering on the women he seduces and uses as an excuse to bolster his ego. He's not a character I can find much sympathy for, with his utterly selfish concerns. Anna is singularly confused and seems unable to make up her own mind about much that troubles her in life. She yearns to be as free as she believes Dave to be, and it's easy to understand this desire when set against the strictures society places on her.

There are asides, set-based devices, and other interactions that illustrate the differences between the male and female views of life at the time, and I suspect these would have worked very well in performance.  They don't translate well via the text alone, however. Would I go to see the play in performance?  I wish I'd seen it at the time, when so much more was immediately relevant, but I don't think I'd watch it today, unless it was substantially re-written to accommodate what has changed. For all that, I enjoyed the read.

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