By Joanna Baillie
Directed by Imogen Bond
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Thursday 8th May 2008
I’m not quite sure what to make of this play. The characters are interesting, and reasonably well drawn (the performances were, of course, excellent), but the language is so flowery that it sometimes gets in the way. The degree of psychological insight makes it a powerful piece, but the style is not my cup of tea at all. A mixed bag, then.
The set is the simplest I’ve seen at the Orange Tree. A square platform, cut across the corners, with four glass panels to show some uplighting, and stools and a table to tell us which room we’re in. Apart from decoration which looks like someone threw up on the set (speckles of light paint and a wet-look varnish?), this is as basic as it gets. Given the rapid changes of location involved, this was obviously the right choice, and Sam Walters underlined this in the post-show when he said that with a piece that’s new to the audience, it’s important to hold back on the detail and allow the text to speak more directly to the audience.
The setting is a bit vague. It appears to be in Germany, although the location, Amberg(?), is fictional. The director suggested this was because Joanna Baillie needed some remote locations for the play to work, and with the spread of towns and cities at that time in Britain, there were few such remote spots locally that she could use. For once we had consistent period costumes, and given the lack of detail in other areas, I found that helped to stabilise the piece.
The plot concerns the eponymous “hero”, who from childhood has had an unexplained hatred for another man, Count Rezenvelt. We are given a few reasons for this though; De Montfort felt slighted by Rezenvelt, not given his proper due, and Rezenvelt himself admits he was never taken with De Montfort’s pride and his expectation that others would admire him. Shortly before the action of the play, De Montfort had challenged Rezenvelt to a duel over the flimsiest imagined provocation, and matters went from bad to worse when Rezenvelt not only disarmed De Montfort, but refused to kill him, and wanted to be his friend! This was too much for De Montfort, who ran off, with luggage and servants, only to find Rezenvelt in the very town he was hoping to sulk in.
De Montfort’s sister Jane turns up, and she’s so sweet and gracious that almost everyone falls in love with her at first sight. There’s a lovely bit of comedy when a servant, describing this unknown arrival, goes into lengthy raptures about her beauty, her nobility, the simplicity of her dress, etc. The only person not to join the admiration party is Countess Freberg, an older woman of less than attractive appearance, who nevertheless wants to be admired, at least by her husband. He, poor fool, is the unthinking type, full of good will to his fellow man, and letting us know all about it at full volume.
Jane had been staying with her brother, but left him on his own for a while to visit one of their sisters. He slipped off while she was away, but De Montfort’s servant left her a note so she was able to catch her brother up, and arrives at the Freberg’s house in time to be invited to the party they’re giving. De Montfort, Rezenvelt, and a host of beauties are due to be there, and although she’s reluctant at first, she eventually agrees to attend, provided she wears a heavy veil. Her intention is to sound out her brother, and this she does, by telling the gathering that she, as a veiled lady, has been deserted by her brother. De Montfort, not knowing who she is, gets into one of those “my sister’s a wonderful woman, not that you aren’t” kind of arguments. Then, when Rezenvelt tries to step in on the unknown lady’s side, they’re about to come to blows when Jane reveals herself.
The attempted rapprochement the next day doesn’t help. Despite Jane persuading her brother to at least appear to be reconciled to Rezenvelt, he refuses the offered hug, and simply re-offends with his coldness. At this point we get to hear Rezenvelt’s version of events, and I was glad we did. It would be too easy to take De Montfort’s word for the man’s character flaws, or to completely discount them given De Montfort’s extreme prejudice. However, the antipathy is confirmed by Rezenvelt, and although he claims to have done all he can to be a friend to De Montfort, by now he’s willing to treat him as a sworn enemy.
The Countess Freberg comes back into the picture about this time. She was really upset that so many men, and especially her husband, praised Jane excessively at the party. She’s a woman who tries too hard, and despite her maid’s efforts to flatter her, she resolves to spite the newcomer by putting about a rumour that she didn’t come all that way in difficult weather and over rough terrain to be with her brother, but to find her lover, Rezenvelt. She justifies herself by claiming that the rumour might very well be true, but we saw trouble ahead. Unfortunately, this isn’t a moral piece, so the conniving bitch doesn’t get her comeuppance. Ah well.
De Montfort hears this rumour (of his sister’s lover) from a man seeking his assistance. This newcomer has been told about the animosity between the two men, and reckons he can get help from De Montfort by claiming to have been held back from a promotion by none other than Rezenvelt. De Montfort is eager to pounce on this opportunity, but then the man blows it completely with a passing comment about how Rezenvelt will soon be De Montfort’s relation. De Montfort sends him packing, and then experiences one of those wonderful strokes of luck that so rarely happen in real life but which abound in plays. His servant informs him that Rezenvelt is heading for a very remote house (to see a friend), and will be walking alone, across a wooded area, at night, and it’s a place well known for robbers and murderers. What will De Montfort do? It’s a tough decision, but he’s just the hard-boiled cookie to make it. (Actually, he’s a real softie, which explains why he lost the duel with Rezenvelt – as soon as he realises he’s about to hurt someone he backs off. What a wimp!)
Anyway, his anger carries him through. Rezenvelt is all Pollyanna about the darkness, the hooting owl, the distant tolling of a bell, the risk, etc. The bell is being rung at a nearby nunnery, where the nuns, with some monks, are about to say prayers for a recently deceased sister. Various extra monks arrive, giving us all the news of a dead body, and the deranged murderer, so soon we have both the corpse and its killer on stage, locked in the same small room of the abbey. I found this part less interesting, until Jane turns up, trying to comfort her brother by reassuring him that God forgives all. De Montfort suddenly realises from Jane’s general kindness in grieving for Rezenvelt, that she hadn’t been in love with him, and the full horror of what he’s done grips De Montfort as strongly as his hatred had before. It’s interesting that he doesn’t get to clarify this with his sister; he’s dragged off in chains before they get a chance to talk, and then we hear the reports of his severe illness and death. He dies from being too noble to live with the knowledge of what he’s done, although I suspect heart failure will be the entry on the death certificate.
It’s quite a ride through the emotions, this one, and I found the play not entirely satisfying. However, I did appreciate the intensity created by the production, so that the characters seemed to be colourful and detailed, while the setting was vague and uncluttered. According to the post-show, that was the intention. I enjoyed all the performances, although I particularly liked Christina Greatrex as the Countess Freberg; her character’s dislike for Jane was so clearly visible, as was the effort she had to make to be pleasant at times. Justin Avoth as De Montfort provided a strong central performance. I felt he got across the shades of his character’s darkness very well, and Alice Barclay as Jane was believable as the woman that all fall in love with at first sight. I was distracted occasionally by some noisy people behind us, but on the whole the afternoon passed quickly and pleasantly.
I think I’ve mentioned all the post-show points I can remember in the notes, so I’ll leave it there.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me