‘Windows’ review: ‘Poignant and relevant’

Izzy Smith finds this interwar play still resonates powerfully today

Opening scene of 'Windows' Source: Finborough Theatre http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/press-images/2017/windows.php

The complex dynamics between the characters of Windows are established remarkably effectively by the wordless opening scene. Each of the three acts begins with a silent enactment of the interwar middle-class March family eating together, with the placement, body language and facial expressions of each character communicating an impressive amount regarding their feelings, personality and relationship with the others. This first is perhaps most revealing, showing breakfast sped through, as wife Joan rushes her food to go and start her shopping list, and husband Geoffrey absentmindedly steals her chair to read his paper by the window – at which she is privately annoyed, unnoticed by him. Son Johnny turns his back on the room after eating to stare broodingly at the audience, and daughter Mary, ignored, wanders aimlessly.

This believable construction of relationships continues throughout, between the lines of what are in themselves fairly unenlightening philosophical conversations. These discussions do to some extent become fairly tiresome, largely involving vague postulating about human nature, moderation and the role of ideals, and conclusions drawn are often shown simply not to fit the real life situations that arise within the play.

This effect, combined with Carolyn Blackhurst’s impressive performance, make practical Joan a remarkably persuasive and understandable character, especially considering how little I actually agree with her views. Blackhurst is incredibly adept at portraying both Joan’s intransigent exterior, and her inner conflict born of unwavering tenderness towards relations she so disagrees with.

But while the constant philosophical discussions can become tedious in themselves, what they reveal about the characters is anything but. Characters’ relationships with ideas and philosophy reveal a great deal about their self-perception, and how they relate to others.

Geoffrey, as a middle class man, has the luxury of being able to play with ideas without having to worry in any personal way about their implications. He is therefore affably but detachedly fascinated by his window cleaner Bly’s story of his daughter Faith’s troubled past, and the man’s philosophising about it. Equally though, he is rather shocked by the idea of employing or even meeting her, until he decides that it might actually be rather fascinating. Joan, on the other hand, to whom the responsibility of running the house falls, is frustrated by everyone’s desire to play with concepts and chase ideals, to the detriment of everything running smoothly. As she points out, it is all very well for everyone to think themselves charitable in pushing to employ Faith, when it is Joan who will have to deal with any problems. Johnny’s promises to help sound like the empty vows of a child wanting a puppy.

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This exemplifies how Johnny’s relationship with ideas feeds into the most interesting element of the play: its critique of class relations. Feeling lost and pointless after fighting in the First World War, he clutches at a sense of moral superiority, lecturing about the importance of ideals, and wanting to do good in order to obtain a sense of purpose. He thinks that giving his sister a Chinese burn makes an eloquent point, seeing a lack of violence towards the weak as an example of heroism and chivalry. His attitude towards working-class ex-convict Faith reveals how Johnny’s desire to be chivalrous is essentially self-seeking and parasitic. He self-glorifies, telling her she is small and frail, just like those he fought to protect, and takes it upon himself to ‘save’ her. Ultimately, his frankly childish protest against her dismissal as his family’s maid, camping outside her door with supplies of chocolate and cigars and calling this a ‘hunger strike,’ just causes her further humiliation.

None of the middle-class characters seem to be able to interact with working-class people naturally. Johnny’s hero complex is juxtaposed to Joan’s greater recognition of Faith’s agency, but harsh and illogical belief that poverty is the fault of the individual. Geoffrey’s fascination at Bly’s philosophising doesn’t read quite as respect between equals, but almost like admiration of a precocious child.

What becomes unavoidably clear among these messy interactions is that the survival and dignity of people like Faith should not be at the mercy of individuals – her predicament is a failure of society as a whole, and specifically the state. Perhaps more glaring to modern viewers than original 1920s audiences are the absence of any kind of welfare state, and the fact that Faith’s prison experience has been one of straightforward psychological torture, with no attempt at rehabilitation or any training for employment on release.

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Her vulnerability is not, as Johnny decides, an element of her character, but a consequence of her being utterly disempowered by the state and class hierarchy. Everything, from her past crime to her precarious position during the action of the play, has been a consequence of this stripping of power. While Johnny whines about the death of individual chivalry, he completely misses what Faith really needs: not to be paternalistically ‘saved,’ but to be treated as a human being, and be allowed independence and dignity by the system.

Faith’s needs and the flaws within society are communicated clearly before the, rather superfluous, final moments of the performance. A drunken Joan, as though met with an epiphany, rapturously declares that Faith doesn’t want to be saved, she just wants to be loved. She then encourages them all to open the windows, and then stands outside, arms spread wide and sleeves billowing, accompanied by brighter, dramatic lighting. For a performance whose success lies in subtext, and the subtle communication of dynamics and flaws in people’s thinking, this is a disappointingly clunky, and frankly cheesy, note to end on.

In terms of its critique of class relations and the role of the state, though, Windows is a very poignant and relevant play even 85 years after it was last performed, particularly considering the way in which public services are currently being cut. The Finsborough Theatre’s production, with the audience sitting within the wallpapered confines of the March’s dining room set, reminds us where our country has been in a complex deeply personal way, and serves as a warning of what we could feasibly regress towards. A perceptive and moving performance.