Joanna Murray-Smith wrote Honour more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1995. A neat 90-minute four-hander that examines the disintegration of a long-standing marriage, it’s been staged around the world, clearly hitting a chord with its depiction of a middle-aged man’s desire for a younger woman and the wife he leaves without warning.

Lucy Bell as Honor and Huw Higginson as George in HONOUR Credit_Prudence UptonLucy Bell as Honor and Huw Higginson as George in the Ensemble Theatre’s Honour.  Photo © Prudence Upton

Small changes can have a big effect on a work. The Ensemble’s new production gave Murray-Smith the opportunity to update references to the present day, which she achieves without strain. She also had a little tinker to take into account shifting perceptions of how a woman might regard her role in a partnership where she gives up certain things as her husband works on his career. And I might be misremembering, having last seen Honour at Sydney Theatre Company in 2010, but there seems to be rather less of the juddery, stuttery, let’s-begin-again language that for me made some aspects of Honour seem too brittle and artificial.

Or it may be that director Kate Champion has gently massaged the text. Whatever it is, Champion has delivered a moving, resonant production with central performances of great delicacy. Honour’s canvas is very small, in a way, dealing as it does with middle-age, middle-class infidelity. A cliché indeed. The task is to give that cliché flesh and blood. To make us care even where and when Murray-Smith’s writing goes for the head rather than the heart. Lucy Bell as the discarded wife, Honor, and Huw Higginson’s George unswervingly find that heart in their double portrait of two intelligent, interesting people who love one another but end up apart.

George, a highly regarded journalist in later middle age, is dazzled by a clever, desirable young woman who admires his work. He must – must – follow his heart, although blind Freddy can see another part of his make-up is to the fore. I don’t just mean the obvious. George is struck by a late-breaking wave of physical passion to be sure but there’s also a huge amount of ego involved. The young woman, Claudia (Ayeesha Ash), seems genuinely attracted to his mind and George is immensely flattered. He can guide Claudia, or so he thinks. You don’t get that at home after 30 years of marriage – or 32, as George is tartly reminded by Honor.

At stake is not just a marriage but important questions of how one views and controls emotions and how to conduct oneself. What happens when love and passion collide? What of honesty, responsibility, kindness, respect, discretion, decorum?

 Ayeesha Ash as Claudia in HONOUR Credit_PrudenceUptonAyeesha Ash as Claudia in the Ensemble Theatre’s Honour. Photo © Prudence Upton

One of the saddest lines is Honor’s. With George having left and her daughter (Poppy Lynch) grown, “Who do I look after now?” she asks. These days it might be fashionable to say Honor shouldn’t see herself primarily in the role of carer but Bell never makes you feel that this part of her nature – a beautiful, nurturing, selfless, loving part – is the whole woman. We see she is going to have to make a more prominent place for herself in her life, to look after herself more, to pay attention to her other gifts, and that she has the resources to do so.

Honor’s change is forced on her but she’s strong enough to get on with it. George allows himself to be led and suffers terribly because of it. Ash is a rightly fascinating Claudia. Murray-Smith asks a lot of this character. At 29, Claudia arrives in George and Honor’s home in a subservient capacity (she’s writing a profile of George) but from the off she is forceful, frank, articulate, questioning, flattering, seductive, great at working the system. She’s a tough nut. At the same time she has to be intriguing because she’s difficult to like, protected by a suit of armour that Honor instantly sees but the easily plucked George does not.

It’s a lot to integrate and Ash does it by making Claudia’s manipulations and inconsistencies in some ways admirable as a way of coping in a tough world. Less convincing is Lynch’s Sophie, the decidedly unconfident 24-year-old daughter who both berates and needs her parents. She does have one of the play’s most pungent observations however. You have to be alert, she tells Honor. You have to be so alert.

It’s so true.

Poppy Lynch as Sophie and Lucy Bell as Honor in HONOUR Credit_Prudence UptonPoppy Lynch as Sophie and Lucy Bell as Honor in the Ensemble Theatre’s Honour. Photo © Prudence Upton

That George retains our compassion even as he flails around, telling Honor why he is leaving in a blurted-out brutality that has the audience gasping, is Higginson’s gift to the play and the audience. The final scene that unites George and Honor briefly is a masterclass in understatement. Here are two actors at the top of their game.

The tiny Ensemble Theatre houses an elegant production. Simone Romaniuk designed the single minimalist set with its hint of a large book-lined room at Honor and George’s home. Honour changes scene often, with Damien Cooper’s lighting and Nate Edmondson’s score beautifully delineating the different places and times.

Champion had a stellar career as a performer and choreographer before turning to directing. I think one can see valuable traces of that in her theatre work. Champion is deeply attuned to the powerful qualities inherent in non-verbal communication and body language, making some of Honour’s most devastating moments those when there are simply no words to express the pain. The bodies and faces – those of Honor and George, Bell and Higginson – tell the story.

Honour is at the Ensemble, Kirribilli, Sydney until June 5

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