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Peter Hall’s production of The Portrait of a Lady has arrived at The Rose Theatre Kingston, heralding a season of Hall-directed productions all set to transfer from the Theatre Royal Bath. This adaptation of Henry James’ 1881 novel – a book that James himself doubted could ever be made into a stage play – is a bold attempt from Nicola Frei. Bold because, of the two paths adaptors may take when setting out to capture their prey – stalk the original closely, or create a beast of your own – Frei has done both. She has given us a coherent version of James’ dense, ponderous, charged novel – a very big animal indeed – but she has also done something radical by jumping on its back and turning it upside down. She begins at the end of the book and finishes at the beginning.
It is a tribute to the psychological acuity of Henry James’ novel, with its nineteenth-century emphasis on character as destiny, that it survives this topsy-turvy treatment. A different kind of suspense from that intended by the novel is created when you know the answers before you know the questions and the machinations of the murkier characters are laid bare so early in the evening, yet the play remains psychologically interesting.
The beautiful, freedom-loving American, Isabel Archer (Catherine McCormack), is already the trapped and unhappy Mrs Osmond when the play opens. The spontaneous energy of the New World has been subsumed into the torpid and corrupt Old European World of her husband Gilbert Osmond (Finbar Lynch) and his close friend Madame Merle (Niamh Cusack); both Americans, but long adrift in Italy. We time-travel back with Isabel in the general direction of the idealistic girl of five years earlier, but with wearying hops and skips; ‘Three Weeks Later’, ‘Three Months Earlier’, ‘Two Weeks Later’ a series of projections tell us. Dramatically, it is a little indigestible, but it gets the job done.
Along the way, we meet the suitors that the clever Miss Archer has discarded for the appalling Osmond: her kind, consumptive cousin Ralph Touchett (a lovely, relaxed performance by Anthony Howell), the ardent, handsome Caspar Goodwood (Oliver Chris) and a personable member of the English aristocracy Lord Warburton (Dan Fredenburgh). There is a danger attached to laying bare the bones of any plot and it proves true here. The suspicion mounts that this is a Portrait of a Lady who is a complete fool.
Not that Catherine McCormack’s Isabel does not make us feel for her; her suffering is tangible, ensnared in the net prepared for her by Niamh Cusack’s vivacious, restless Madame Merle and Finbar Lynch’s cold, collector of a husband. Nicola Frei’s adaptation reveals that neither character actually hides their unpleasantness from Isabel; they are, in fact, remarkably honest. It is Isabel Archer’s belief in her own clear-sightedness that actually obscures her vision. It must be said that Catherine McCormack is too old for the part, though; not many of us can pull off being ‘As fresh as summer rain’ once we’re over twenty-five and, lovely as she is, she is no exception. Youth is crucial to this part, not only because she is innocence corrupted by experience, but also because she personifies a young country – America – stumbling into the old culture of Europe.
Imperfect casting aside, Peter Hall’s direction is immaculate. I like the formality of the freeze-frame tableaux before the lights come up on each scene and his little diagonal groupings of the characters give depth and intimacy to the Rose’s shallow, frieze-like stage. Peter Mumford’s set – a changing cyclorama of epic Italian views glimpsed through forbidding, dark arches – is effective, as is his lighting. In one scene he projects the arch-shaped light from the windows on to the floor, adding bars to emphasize the gilded cage that Isabel is freely stepping into.
The smaller parts are very well-played; a lovely scene between Anthony Howell’s warm, ailing Ralph Touchett and Susie Trayling as Henrietta Stackpole, Isabel’s busybody companion, a journalist from Boston, conveys the best of young Americans; bantering ‘Intimate Enemies’, they get a run on the language, making lines like ‘I insist on taking precedence in his dissatisfaction’, seem perfectly natural.
An enjoyable and interesting production then, if lacking in dramatic tension. Where Henry James places detail on top of detail in his exposition of character, Nicola Frei has attempted to peel away the layers. There may be a reason, however, why The Portrait of a Lady, unlike his short novellas The Aspern Papers (1888) and The Turn of the Screw(1898), has never been successfully staged. Perhaps the devil – the very essence of this novel – is in its detail.
Claire Ingrams © 2008
Originally published on R&V 31-08-08
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