The Count of Monte Cristo
Adapted from the Alexandre Dumas novel by Helen Tolson and Terrence Mann
Thunder Road Theatre Co in association with Harrogate Theatre
Harrogate Theatre Studio
Thunder Road is a young company, its actors barely out of the University of Central Lancashire, and the director for this show, Terence Mann, one of their lecturers. The company's stated aim is to present 'classical theatre with a modern twist', and, having garnered praise for 2011's Hyde, they have followed a similar route with this small-scale, loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's famous tale of false imprisonment and the wronged man's revenge.
Note that this is a loose adaptation. The narrative is framed by the story of a man, Edward Dayton, who, like Edmond Dantès in the original novel, has been imprisoned in some modern-day setting which is left deliberately vague by the production. The tales of the two imprisoned men begin to merge in Dayton's mind, until he is uncertain where he ends and Dumas's character begins. As such, we don't follow Dumas's plot in any straightforward sense, though the scale and selectiveness of the adaptation is well suited to the time and spatial constraints of the theatrical version.
In the first half, Dayton (Scott Hodgson) is led down this treacherous mental slope by the impish figure of Alex Moran playing—at first—the Abbé Faria of the original novel. This 'mad priest' then in turn takes on the guise of various other characters from the novel. The multi-role nature of the part plays well to Artistic Director Moran's strengths of vocal versatility, as he transforms himself into different figments of Dayton's imagination.
Hodgson fares less well, and his vocal rhythms lack the variation necessary to sustain interest—he fails really to connect the character's thoughts or to engage with his fellow performer. In fairness, though, a lot of his role involves looking immersed in his own thoughts, and musing ponderously over his situation.
The decision to set the piece entirely in the prison cell is hence both a blessing and a curse. It suits the small studio spaces to which this production is touring, and the adaptation cleverly squeezes a lot of the narrative into the tiny confines of the prison—effectively into the hallucinatory mind of the main character.
But on the other hand, a large amount of the action is blocked by troubled sightlines: one consequence of the setting is that a great deal takes place with the performers sitting or lying, and much of Moran's surprising first appearance, for instance, was near impossible to see from all but the front rows of the studio. Hodgson, as mentioned, is also required by his prison-bound, internal setting to spend a lot of time staring thoughtfully out into the middle distance.
Furthermore, the performers' physicalities are, by necessity, constrained, and, though Helen Kay's fight choreography ticks as many boxes as it can, one feels that the epic sweep of the novel and the unquestionable energy of the performers might both fare better if unleashed in larger settings.
Terence Mann's direction has strong moments and varies the use of the space well (with the caveat of those sightline issues whenever the performers take a seat). But there are moments of misfire, too; unfortunately, one such moment opens the show, with an interminable sequence of tableaux recreating the tedium of waiting alone in a cell, the at times grating soundtrack likewise coming too close to inducing actual insanity in the spectator.
There are some nice touches throughout, but, by the time the madman is playing hangman with his new cellmate, something has gone awry. The deliberately vague setting of the framing narrative is ultimately left too nebulous, and frustratingly remains only loosely linked to the politics of the novel. And the cast is competent but does not bring the text completely alive, a difficulty in a two-hander of this nature.
Pared down slightly, this might yet make a good fringe festival show, but at present it's too mixed a bag wholeheartedly to recommend.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith