De Monfort

Joanna Baillie
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Publicity image

Witchcraft at the Finborough last week, De Monfort at the Orange Tree this: after long absence from the stage two Joanna Baillie plays in as many weeks and a great opportunity to see why she was so acclaimed as poet and playwright in her time. Acclaimed, yes, but not much produced. Witchcraft, like many of her works, she never saw staged; another Scottish play, Family Legends, had some success in Edinburgh and was later staged at Drury Lane and Constantine Paleologus was done at the Surrey Theatre, but it was De Monfort for which she was probably best known. It was put on by John Philip Kemble at Drury Lane in 1800 and revived by Edmund Kean in 1821.

De Monfort was published (at first anonymously) in 1798 in what became the first of a series of volumes of plays, each of which was based on a human passion; in this case hatred: the hatred of De Monfort for another aristocratic gentleman called Rezenvelt which has simmered since childhood and is now to be coming to the boil. They meet when both are visiting another town, where De Monfort is joined by his sister Lady Jane. Deliberately spread gossip makes De Monfort think that Jane and Rezenvelt plan to marry, which puts him in a feverish rage. He waylays Rezenvelt in a wood and kills him, then, having been arrested for the murder, he dies of remorse before he can be brought to justice.

It is not much of a plot and from this production I am at a loss to see why some regard it as 'a work of complex psychological depth.' There seems to me to be no depth at all, we learn so little about the characters and the causes of this hate originating in some childhood slights that has been festering for years. It is clear what Kemble saw in the play: a part to show of virtuoso acting that swings from polite restraint to bursts of emotion and then an explosion of violent passion in a mad frenzy. According to Kemble's biographer Boaden (who did not rate this play highly) Kemble tinkered with it a little and apparently when Kean played it Baillie herself made some revisions - though I assume for this production director Imogen Bond worked from the original published version.

Justin Avoth, as De Monfort, looks a curl-haired Byronic hero and seizes the opportunities the role offers. He clearly relishes the language and delivers this rich writing well without any loss of pace. Of course, there is a great deal of emoting - Baillie seems to be simply displaying hatred, not exploring it, which is the weakness of this play - but he gets a balance between naturalism and histrionics that is beautifully matched to the venue and is made to seem more natural by the deliberately overblown acting of some of his colleagues which gives us what might be thought a very Georgian theatre flavour, though not all are entirely successful. Bombastic playing matches the writing, gabbling it, as sometimes happens, doesn't.

It is perhaps understandable that Kemble should have been able to get his sister Sarah Siddons to play the role of Lady Jane but it is not a large one and has few big moments. However, as played by Alice Barclay it is difficult to see why Siddons should have declared 'write me more Jane de Monforts!' She delivers a very slight performance, more lovely dresses than the fine woman the other characters go on about, and has little sense of the poetry. She needs much more strength and authority to pull of the final scene if it is going to make a powerful finish. She was playing in an entirely different convention.

For that final scene Kemble produced a spectacular abbey set with deep shadows and stained glass windows: the sort of scenic theatre that Baillie was not aiming for. The simplicity of Sam Dowson's staging would surely have pleased her with its concentration on the actors, relying almost entirely on lighting (including the stained glass window), a few pieces of furniture and some excellent costuming, some of which was delightfully over the top when appropriate. What this simplicity does show up, as always at the Orange Tree, is the quality of the acting and here, the relatively thin content of Baillie's story in contrast to her lovely language.

Until 31st May 2008

Incidentally, the main image of the programme (and the illustration for this review) is a detail from George Clint's painting of Edmund Kean, his blazing eyes must have seemed appropriate. The portrait is not identified but this is Kean as Sir Giles Overreach in "A New Way to Pay Old Debts" not as De Monfort.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton