The Potrait Of A Lady @ Festival Theatre, Malvern

cast list
Catherine McCormack
Niamh Cusack
Finbar Lynch
Anthony Howell
Jean Marsh
Christopher Ravenscroft

directed by
Peter Hall
Sir Peter Hall is one of the best known names in. Less well known is his wife, the scriptwriter Nicola Frei, who has reworked Henry James tale of female liberation and independence for the stage.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Peter Hall Company, they are presenting two cautionary tales of female entrapment and empowerment. The first was Ibsens classic A Dolls House, the second is The Portrait of a Lady both premiering at the Theatre Royal in Bath prior to national tours.

Frei has taken the bold decision of telling the story in reverse, which may baffle those unfamiliar with the plot of the novel but should delight those looking for a fresh take on the classic. James tome. It is by no means difficult to follow, but, in Freis adaptation, characters are often alluded to before they appear on stage, so a little extra concentration is necessary.

Despite this structural tinkering, Frei has managed to retain a great deal of the storys spirit and themes from a novel that James himself said could not be adapted for stage. The story is actually unchanged; Isabel Archer gains a large inheritance from her uncle and, after turning down several ardent suitors, she defies all advice and marries an acquaintance of her friend Madam Merle, the controlling and cold Gilbert Osmond.

Hall, directing, makes it difficult not to feel the chill of the strained relationship as Isabel and her husband take swipes at one another from the very first scene. Following this opening scene, the production flits backwards and forwards in time, unravelling the reasons for Isabels misery, introducing the English clod Lord Warburton (played to great comic effect by Dan Fredenburgh). Other suitors include Anthony Howells Ralph Touchett, whose level of sentiment can only be matched by the lead McCormack. It is impossible to remain unmoved while watching him swallowing down his affection for her, knowing that she could never love him due to his worsening health. Telling the story in reverse has this great effect of fuelling the audiences pity for both these characters, as we see Ralph restored in health and Isabel in spirit as the play progresses.

The more we see of Osmond, the more unlikeable he becomes and at times it was difficult to stifle screams of dont do it! (though maybe thats just me). This is, mainly, due to Finbar Lynchs obnoxiousness in the role, especially when describing the vast collections of artifacts that, one feels, Isabel is to become a part of. Employing a slimy smile and a thick accent, he makes him a pretty solid hate-figure.

The cast all handle their roles with aplomb, coping easily with fast-paced dialogue that characterize the numerous society events. Hall keeps things bubbling along and makes it clear these are broken individuals, no longer American and yet not European. McCormack is every bit the confused innocent, awash amongst these damaged people and she adds a real degree of warmth to the part.

Unfortunately the soap opera style revelation that Madam Merle is the biological mother of Isabels stepdaughter is glossed over, but the final scene still has impact, with the lone figure of Isabel isolated on stage, unsure whether to return to her doomed marriage or pursue her freedom.

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