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A CurtainUp London Review
I suppose a straightforward biographical costume drama is rather rare on the West End stage nowadays but this is the second play about the marital infidelities of the Pre-Raphaelites in less than a year. The period crinolines and silk top hats are all very well done, there is steam from the railways but the Scottish set bears more than a passing resemblance to a hobbit hole with its shiny plastic rocks. Christopher Lione's designs for crinoline dresses for Lady Eastlake (Linda Thorson) and Effie Ruskin are the visual stars of the show. Like the overstuffed Victorian drawing room, this production of The Countess is full of furniture detail and discordant musical links between scenes.
Alison Pargeter is sweet and Scottish as Effie, but marriage to the dour and confused Ruskin (Nick Moran) grinds her down. She has to spend much of the play in misery, confined to the South London house with the Ruskins, her ghastly parents in law (Jean Boht and Gerald Harper) and her repressed husband and without the distraction of children. Only the visits of Lady Eastlake encourage Effie to find herself. Damian O'Hare is sincere as the young John Everett Millais but hardly the romantic hero. In fact I thought Damian O'Hare looks physically so very like the portrait of John Ruskin, straight reddish brown hair, defined nose, I wonder if the casting of the men would have worked better with their roles reversed. Nick Moran as Ruskin is as much depressed as repressed. Incidentally if you want to see Millais' representation of Mrs Ruskin (he called her the countess) then his painting of a Highland family The Order of Release shows us what Effie Ruskin looked like. Millais described her as an odd beauty, maybe what the French call oxymoronically a jolie laide.
I frankly found Gregory Murphy's dialogue as clunky as the nineteenth century steam railway engines. Take Ruskin's words to Effie recalling their visit to Italy, "I wish the world could always be Venice for you, but it can't." Given that much of the playscript was actually found in the letters and diaries of the participants, I can hear the playwright replying, "But Ruskin actually said that!" Maybe he did but I am also sure he did not intend his words to be heard by theatresfull of people. I am also not sure that viewing The Countess adds anything to our appreciation of the artistic importance of Millais and Ruskin, even if we were previously unaware of the "scandal" surrounding Ruskin's marriage.
The programme is well researched and has lots of background information on the characters in the play. I liked the device of an audience being repeatedly requested with Queen Victoria via her daughter Princess Louise by Effie's son to carry the final denouement of the play.
LINK TO REVIEW OF The Countess in New York The Countess
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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