The Portrait Of A Lady – August 2008

6/10

By Henry James, adapted by Nicki Frei

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 28th August 2008

The set was a forward curve of arches, with ledges on the columns, and all in dark marble. Chairs and tables were brought on and moved around as needed, while the curved backdrop had different vistas projected onto it.

The performances were good. Although Finbar Lynch had trouble maintaining a consistent accent, he portrayed the menace of his character really well. Jean Marsh was only a tad better with her accent, but she did get some good lines, and the revelations at the end came from her character. All the other accents were fine, and Christopher Ravenscroft in particular livened things up in his one scene. The scenes themselves were sometimes bitty, and the scene changes could drag on a little. I wasn’t keen on the backward timeline for this particular story; knowing how it ends means I don’t get to enjoy the full emotional journey, and the later scenes from earlier times tend to be box-tickers, filling in the details to which we’ve had clues in the previous future scenes (gosh, it’s hard work explaining this so I can remember it).

The second half was definitely better than the first – both Steve and I felt the first half was a bit pedestrian – but then I found myself getting a bit lost with the time travel element. Mr Goodwood in particular suffered from this, as he turned up only occasionally and I lost track of when we’d seen him before, in the future. In fact, although I found the second half generally more interesting, I also felt it was more confusing with all the jumping around in time.

I didn’t know the story at all before today, so I’ve no idea how well it represented the original novel. My impression at the end is that Isabel Archer is a bright but not particularly shrewd young lady, whose main character flaw is a passion for independence. She’s determined to make up her own mind and make her own choices, which she then sticks to tenaciously, as they represent such an important part of her. She has the bad luck to fall in with a spider of a man, eager to lure a rich woman into his web, and with the wit to let her walk in of her own free choice. Mind you, I’m not sure from the alternatives on offer that she’d have been happy with any of her other suitors. Maybe Lord Warburton could have made it work, but she would probably have found the conventions of the English aristocracy too stifling. A heroine doomed to misery then, and we lucky people get to share bucketloads of it with her. Oh joy.

Still, the story was interesting in its own way, despite the method of telling it, and I was taken once again by how much James’s American characters are drawn to all things European, despite many of them considering the American way to be better. Admittedly, several of the American characters in this story are ex-pats who’ve lived in Europe for many years, often since childhood, so the pattern isn’t so obvious this time around. I did like the music between scenes, which is also part of Isabel’s first meeting with Madam Merle – it turns out Mme Merle’s an accomplished pianist, and it was her  playing that we heard. For the beginning of each scene, the characters held a tableau, emphasising the “portrait” aspect of the piece, and indeed I often felt while watching the first few scenes that I was looking at a setting for some formal portraits. The costumes looked fine to me, though the need for quick changes meant our heroine seemed to be wearing black more than was strictly necessary or helpful. As the story unfolds, though, there seem to be lots of reasons for full or partial mourning, so perhaps that explains it. Even so, I felt it lessened the impact of the change in her character that she was dressed so drably for most of the play.

So, not my favourite James adaptation, then, but still a good afternoon in the theatre.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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