Stella Gonet is a mother trying to hold the family together in tough times in W Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre (July 31-September 5).
Written in 1932, it confronts with honesty the unspoken consequences of war, loss and trauma on one ordinary English family.
As Stella says: “In the programme, there’s the line ‘He may have been a very good naval officer. He was a very poor business man. That’s all there is to it.’ When I read the play, I was very, very drawn to it. I just love the way he writes, and he writes so incredibly well for women. But when the play was first presented, it was not very well received at all. People didn’t like its anti-war stance… and it is very anti-war.
“There were all these people that had managed during the war, that were good naval officers or whatever, but who were now struggling because life had changed so much. It was a vastly-altered world after the war. There was huge debt and redundancy and depression… all those things. And this is about one family that are impoverished and are struggling to hold on to what they have got.
“I am the mother who is trying to keep all the plates spinning. We discover during the course of the play something about her, and there is a very extraordinary decision that she makes. She has three daughters and one son who has come back from the war a hero, but blind.
“One daughter lost her fiancé and is bitterly unhappy and miserable. It is her lot to look after the blind son. The middle daughter married hastily to a small tenant farmer who is a drinker. And then there is a younger daughter who is hard and selfish and about to make her break from the family. Mother sees it all, sees it all and doesn’t judge and just tries to keep going.
“It’s definitely period, but it doesn’t mean it is not relevant. You do try to honour the fact that they say things differently, but that’s something I love doing. It is beautiful language, but you don’t look at it and feel it is all tennis courts and drawing rooms. Certainly (director) Howard Davies’ vision is free and open. It is good, and I think it is very relevant in that there is still depression and redundancy. Those things are all around it. Things like that don’t change.
“I think Howard had read the play a while ago and wanted to do it. I think he wanted to do it at the National, and then (CFT artistic director) Jonathan Church said ‘Would you like to do it here?’
“I did a Somerset Maugham short story that was adapted into a play a couple of years ago. It was called Before the Party. I found that fabulous. It was just such a brilliant piece of work. I started reading all Somerset Maugham’s short stories. He is so beautiful at the story-telling, so straightforward, no frills. I hadn’t read any of his plays, but the short stories were wonderful. At the beginning of the year, I was asked if I wanted to do this now, and I said definitely I did!
“I don’t think I find it difficult to get into the language because I have done quite a few period pieces. You take what you can to make it as truthful as you can, and you have just got to honour the way people spoke at the time.”
Tickets for Chichester Festival Theatre on 01243 781312.
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