Arriving in London after a successful run in New York, Gregory Murphy’s new play about the unfortunate marriage of John Ruskin is a surprisingly conventional piece of theatre, though still satisfying in parts. There’s a stuffy, old fashioned quality to both the sets and the staging that was rather jarring even with it playing in the elegant, subterranean Criterion, the theatre that was previously home to the Reduced Shakespeare Company for a frankly unfathomable nine years.
Murphy has opted for a very stiff, straightforward retelling of the relationship that developed between Ruskin’s wife and the artist Everett Millais. The first act takes place in the Scottish Highlands where Ruskin, the eminent art critic and orator, is preparing for a series of lectures in Edinburgh while Millais paints his portrait. Ruskin’s wife Effie – whom they both refer to as “Countess” – is also present; a Scotswoman herself she is glad of the opportunity to escape the oppression of London society life. But holed up together in a small isolated cottage the cracks in the Ruskins’ marriage become ever more apparent to Millais. He is appalled by Ruskin’s chilly treatment of his wife and, at the same time, finds himself increasingly drawn to her.
In the second act, events relocate to London, and though this later episode is more briskly presented and raises a number of laughs, it is the earlier Scotland-set scenes that are the most emotionally involving as Millais and Effie’s attraction blossoms. Some of the plays most tender and affecting moments come at this stage, especially in the scene where the Countess trims Millais’ hair while they both struggle to keep their feelings hidden. The second act, depicting the fallout of their encounter, is however marred by some ‘big’ acting and the fact that the leading lady spends most of her time on stage on the brink of tears.
Murphy depicts Ruskin as a man who, though passionate about beauty and art, struggles with reality to the point that he is physically repulsed by his wife. And he assigns the blame for this behaviour firmly with the man’s severe and controlling parents (played here unremarkably by Jean Boht and Gerald Harper). In a role that is a world away from his Lock Stock antics Nick Moran does a solid job of humanising Ruskin, portraying him as an ultimately weak and conflicted man.
Damian O’Hare as Millais is also engaging, though his part feels rather underwritten. But the production hinges on the part of the Countess and Alison Pargeter manages to convince as the intelligent and strong-minded woman with an “odd beauty” trapped in an impossible situation. Her charm wears a little thin in the second act however when she has little to do but fret and cry. Fortunately Linda Thorson, as Effie’s friend Lady Eastlake, manages to bring some much needed spark to these later scenes.
For those with an affection for the period The Countess contains much to delight, particularly in Christopher Lione’s costumes. Yet the play is not overly romantic about Victorian life, especially in relation to the expectations placed on women: the Ruskins seem overly keen to write off Effie’s understandable depression at being trapped in a loveless marriage as a sign that she is “ill.”
The play ends very abruptly, with Murphy’s framing device not having the impact that it should. But, though somewhat stolid, the Countess will appeal to those who enjoy unfussy storytelling free from flashy theatrics for, despite its flaws, it has at its heart a genuinely compelling tale.