Angels & Insects

AS Byatt, adapted by Juliet Forster
York Theatre Royal and Useful Donkey
York Theatre Royal Studio

Jonathan Race as William and Joanna Hickman as Matty Credit: Karl Andre Photography

The Theatre Royal's rather loosely-defined 'Yorkshire season' is shifting up a gear with a pair of adaptations: AS Byatt's Angels & Insects in the Studio and Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (adapted as iShandy) in the main house.

AS Byatt's 1992 work Angels & Insects actually comprises two novellas, and this production focuses on the first of these tales, entitled Morpho Eugenia. Juliet Forster has adapted and directed the novella, whose title refers to a genus of butterfly central to the plot, and it has clearly been a labour of love for the experienced Theatre Royal director. Forster has beautifully matched form to content, with the verbally intricate direct address of the opening giving us an insight into the sympathetic central figure of William Adamson (Jonathan Race).

Adamson is a naturalist whose expedition to the Amazon has changed the way he views human nature and interaction—he is fascinated by the upper class world of dances and decorum into which he tries to fit upon his return. Of humble stock, and with a shipwreck robbing him of the spoils (both material and in terms of research) of his explorations, Adamson describes his gradual assimilation into the family of Sir Harald Alabaster, himself a keen amateur entomologist.

The undercurrents of passion and sex which throb beneath the strait-laced façade of Victorian England have long been a well-worn trope, but here Byatt throws an interesting new light onto the subject through Adamson's history and character. As a scientist, he is intrigued by the formal dictates of the social dances, and the 'drone nature' of the men in this world. As one of the few contemporary Englishmen to have witnessed the foreign cultures of the Amazonian rain forest, he brings with him knowledge of other sides to humanity and social intercourse which are entirely alien to those around him.

The writing is strong, too, on the soaring passions of all-consuming obsession. When Adamson first sees Alabaster's daughter, Eugenia, he tells us 'I felt as if she brought with her an atmosphere all of her own—I will die if I cannot have her,' and coming from this affable scientist, the depth of feeling is all the more stark.

As Race tells the beginning of this story, he is accompanied on cello by Joanna Hickman. Hickman’s playing is beautifully flexible, and the selection of melodies is apt and adds texture to the storytelling. But this is not simply a one-man storytelling show, and slowly the enigmatic figure portrayed by Hickman begins to contribute in other ways to the tale.

The emphasis is always on clear exposition of wonderfully crafted text, but there are increasingly inventive uses of the simple set of crates and weighty hardback books. Nick Duncan's lighting and Anna Gooch's design are both unfussy yet effective, making good use of the different possible angles of the studio space. There are clever and apt uses of shadow puppetry and paper cut-outs, as well as a multitude of accompaniments from the versatile instrument manoeuvred round the stage by the ethereal, quirkily captivating Hickman. Race is, as ever, a charming and intelligent performer, adopting the flat Northern intonation of one unused to lengthy oration, but retaining within the character sufficient variation and flow to keep the audience rapt.

At nearly two hours, one may question the decision not to include an interval, and one or two of the larger coups de théâtre are perhaps less impressive or unexpected than others; the smaller, simpler ones, on the other hand, rarely fail to draw us into the tale and to raise a smile. So the above caveats should not detract from the achievements of the cast and creative team in bringing an enthralling and deceptively deeply-felt story to teeming life.

Reviewer: Mark Smith

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