According to the Orange Tree’s programme notes, Lord Byron thought Joanna Baillie the only woman capable of writing a decent tragedy. These days her work is infrequently performed but, in a piece of fortuitous theatrical scheduling, this play is being staged at the same time as another of her plays, Witchcraft is being revived at the Finborough Theatre.
Written in 1798, De Monfort is part of a series of works she wrote under the banner of Plays On The Passions. This was her tragedy on the theme of hatred. It concerns the titular De Monfort, a nobleman with a real capacity to hold a grudge. He is violently consumed by a hatred of another man, Rezenvelt, over some past slight, though the details of this offence are never made clear. His passionate dislike of this man has come to dominate his life it eats away at him like a cancer and prevents him from experiencing any true pleasure or joy.
Even his sweet-natured and good-hearted sister, Jane, (a role once relished by Sarah Siddons), can do little to persuade him of the folly of his behaviour. He broods and muses constantly, unable to let go of his hate. So when he starts to falsely suspect that Rezenvelt may have designs on his sister, it pushes him to the edge of insanity and towards a predictably bloody conclusion.
The Orange Tree usually displays an assured hand with their revivals and rediscoveries, but it has deserted them here. Imogen Bond’s production wildly misfires, and whatever qualities Byron saw in Baillie’s writing, it is very difficult to comprehend on this evidence alone. The production seems out of step with itself. It runs to nearly two hours and forty-five minutes and feels longer. Justin Avoth attacks the role of De Monfort, writhing and moaning, rending his clothes, but somehow for all his despairing, he never connects with the audience. His hatred, the source of his pain, remains a mystery. You end up wanting to give him a slap and a shake and tell him to get hold of himself.
The ornately costumed cast go through the motions but with no emotional hook to hold onto, no grasp of what drives this man, his plight does not move, it merely irritates. This feeling of irritation is enhanced by a drawn out final scene at a monastery replete with Latin incantations and ominous midnight calls of ‘murder’ that could have been moodily atmospheric but ended up simply postponing the inevitable for longer, leading to much seat fidgeting and watch checking.
Perhaps if the drama and the anguish had been ratcheted up a level than this could have scraped by, aiming straight for the gut, but this production remains a plodding and uninvolving thing. Its message seems to be that hatred can poison lives and bring good men down, but it tells us little about why men hate or why this particular man hated and, as a result, fails to come together even as a historical curiosity.