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Divorce Papers: Decent Cast, Weak Script

Oliver Samuels and Ruth Ho Shing in Divorce Papers

When I was a child I loved Michigan and Smiley’s ‘Diseases’, and I would happily chant along that Jah should “lick” the transgressors with diseases for their wayward ways. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the ‘sin’ was wearing pants, and getting arthritis for this might be a bit of an overkill. Watching Basil Dawkins’ Divorce Papers, I could not help but be drawn back to ‘Diseases’ as both pieces are about the fate of a transgressing woman, and the price she is expected to pay for this. 

Divorce Papers, Dawkins’ latest production has an underlying thread which has run through several of his plays, especially in recent years. It is the idea that men are to be forgiven all transgressions as long as they apologize, and in Divorce Papers he finally outlines the price that the unforgiving woman should pay. This idea is possibly the most intriguing element of Divorce Papers, but it is probably also its greatest flaw.

Grace (Ruth Ho Shing) and Wayne (Dennis Titus)Divorce Papers is a story of marital transgressions and forgiveness, or the lack of it. The play introduces us to Augustus and Grace Goffe when their marriage is in its final throws, as Augustus finally serves Grace with the divorce for which she has long harangued him. The two fell out of love eons ago and have been living in marital discord for many years following Augustus’ affair with the household help and the resulting illegitimate child. 

The four-hander is led by Oliver Samuels (Augustus Goffe) and Ruth Ho Shing (Grace Goffe)  who alternate with Teddy Price and Barbara McCalla. The cast is rounded out by Maylynne Lowe (Stacey) and Dennis Titus (Wayne). Oliver Samuels and Maylnne Lowe

Ably directed by Douglas Prout, the play is a reasonably handled drama, with a good serving of humourous moments, and generally solid performances. Divorce Papers starts out with a decent set, however, it soon struggles under the demand for multiple locations which are not convincingly effected. 

Alas, its weakest element is the script.

The dialogue often seems like a series of intersecting monologues, with the characters talking at, rather than to each other in extended rants. Fortunately, most of these monologues fall to Samuels, who, with his strong grasp of comedic timing is able to deliver them well, often managing to milk much humour from it. Samuels’ laughter has a Pavlovian effect, once he laughs you have to go along, and this works well with his character, making up for much of its weakness. Unfortunately, one of the elements that Samuels was unable to bring to Augustus, is any realy emotional depth. As such, the sole moment when he is asked to be emotional, devolves into caricature, which may have produced some humour but robbed the play of some of its strength. 

Indeed, the characters are unevenly drawn, especially Grace. Grace is clearly intended to be the villain of this piece, yet her evil is more heard from the lips of Augustus than in anything we see, and she is also never given a chance to tell her side of the story. 

Even so, given the faint lines with which the character is drawn, Ho Shing delivers a solid and engaging performance, and is easily one of the best elements of the play. It is particularly interesting to watch her work in the face of one of Augustus’ extended monologues.

Both Wayne and Stacey are barely sketched and while at first they appear to be gold-diggers, they quickly make awkward, unbelievable about-turns. It seems the only rational explanation for their about-face is to show how terrible a person Grace is, and that she deserves her fate for being a bitter unforgiving woman. 

It is interesting, that just as Grace is unable to forgive her husband and move on, the playwright is unable to forgive her and allow the characters to and blossom. The result, is that Divorce Papers is squashed into a small, misshapen thing, unable to reach its potential.