Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Countess

Gregory Murphy
Criterion Theatre
(2005)

Production photograph

It is remarkable that this is the second play about ménages-à-trois amongst members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to open in London this year.

Peter Whelan's The Earthly Paradise focussed on Dante Gabriel Rosetti and the William Morrises. This play looks at the unconsummated marriage of the Ruskins and the impact on it of a long trip that they took to Scotland with John Everett Millais.

The play managed an unbelievable 634 performances Off-Broadway under director Ludovica Villar-Hauser, who now brings it to London.

From the start, the marriage of art critic John Ruskin and his Scottish wife Effie seems unhappy. Strangely, like Morris, he seems intent on leaving his wife alone with an artist and gets close to pushing the couple together.

The badly-cast Nick Moran, whose fame rests on performances in films such as Lock, Sock and Two Smoking Barrels, fails to make Ruskin sympathetic, although he is egged on by his dreadfully pompous parents played by Gerald Harper and Jean Boht.

Poor Effie, constantly accused of instability bordering on madness, is played by Alison Pargeter as a tearful victim With encouragement, she and Damian O'Hare's Millais do fall in love but seem unable to decide whether to progress matters or not. They are even caught in an embrace by the husband, strangely without any real anger on his side or embarrassment on theirs.

When Effie deserts the ineffectual and increasingly irascible Ruskin, takes him to court and then marries Millais, society's reaction is far from what one might expect today. Opprobrium rained down and Queen Victoria refused her company, presumably as a scarlet woman. These days, she would sell her story to the News of the World and be regarded as a wronged feminist icon welcomed in the very best houses.

The Countess rarely convinces either with its dialogue or its acting, which is unfortunate as the marriage of the Ruskins is potentially a ripe subject for investigation, as is the life of a well-known artist like Millais.

Clearly, something has gone amiss in the Trans-Atlantic transfer of what was such a popular hit in New York. The Countess has moved into the small Criterion Theatre, appropriately overlooked by Eros. It follows The Reduced Shakespeare Company's almost decade-long residency but seems unlikely to last as long.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher