The Earthly Paradise

Peter Whelan
Almeida
(2004)

Pre-Raphaelite painting: publicity image for The Earthly Paradise

Peter Whelan's moving new play, set in the early 1870s, takes its audience into the lives and times of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and, more specifically, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his friends William and Janey Morris.

Rossetti has an artistic temperament that sadly verges more and more on paranoia. His art is beautiful and his poetry effortless but he tortures himself with guilt about the suicide of his wife, Lizzie, and his love for Morris's. For him, the earthly paradise of Kelmscott Manor gradually becomes an appropriately Dantesque infernal hell.

Under Robert Delamere's direction, the play is an undoubted success. Like Vincent in Brixton, it leaves many artistic images in the mind This is largely due to a combination of Saffron Burrows uncannily Pre-Raphaelite good looks, her flowing brown and green velvet dresses, designed by Simon Higlett, and Chris Davey's perfectly judged lighting.

The central themes are art and love. William "Topsy" Morris is on the losing side in both. He recognises that his greatest friend has more talent both on canvas and with the written word and accepts his role as a businessman rather than an artist, "pouring his artistic gifts into.... wallpaper".

His self-sacrifice knows no bounds as he heads off to Iceland with its Utopian classless society, leaving behind his wife as a kind of gift to his friend. That this backfires badly is in no way a reflection of his selflessness.

The writing is frequently poetic with many memorable lines, heavily symbolic as one might expect. It contains a nice mix of humour and pathos as Rossetti searches for the perfect Platonic love from his muse, while succumbing to a cheaper version elsewhere when life becomes unbearable.

This portrait of three artists also educates in the gentlest way so that, almost by osmosis, one learns that as a tribute to his dead wife, Rossetti buried his poetry in her coffin then had it (and presumably her) exhumed seven years later, so that he could publish. He was also host to Lewis Carroll and thereby became the model for The Mad Hatter (or so he would have us believe).

The acting is good all round. Alan Cox gives a fine performance as the manic depressive artist-poet who cannot accept happiness and becomes increasingly maddened by love and insecurity.

Nigel Lindsay makes a bear-like, choleric Morris, happy to watch his wife fuelling the art and (in)sanity of his friend.

Saffron Burrows is a pained Janey, a beautiful model for a painting called Piety, trapped like Guenevere between two great men and yearning for a return to childhood simplicity.

There is also a cameo from Sean Gilder as an austere but kindly manservant/psychiatric nurse.

The Earthly Paradise works on almost every level. It is a well-written tale of "grown people trying to live a fairy story" that gets under the skins of each of its main characters.

For anyone who enjoys plays that appeal to either the head or the heart, it is most strongly recommended. In two-and-a-half hours, it gives a history lesson that, like the best, effortlessly tells us as much about ourselves today as about its protagonists so long ago.

The production runs until 8th January

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

Reviewer: Philip Fisher