Originally published in Venue, issue 826. I like this review, but it feels a bit over-stuffed – somewhere in the second paragraph I bring about a clause pile-up which causes almost total congestion of meaning.
Isabel Archer, the heroine of the Henry James novel adapted here, is a creature of consummate charm and composure, and this production in the Peter Hall Company’s season at the Theatre Royal Bath matches the eponymous lady note for note. Condensing the triple-decker novel into a two-hour play, Nick Frei’s deft script and Hall’s confident direction keep the exposition from overwhelming the story: subtly inventive stagecraft masterfully replicates the Europe-roaming, history-delving, backwards structure of the book, with neat intertitles to establish time and place, and video backdrops to bring them to life.
Within this set-up, the actors supply universally splendid performances – Catherine McCormack is particularly exquisite in the lead role, as the beautiful, independent Isabel, who moves within the genteel milieu of American ex-pats living in 1870s Italy and Britain. There is an abundance of glamour in the gorgeous costumes and settings, but the airless quality of life among exiles is ever-present. Finbar Lynch puts in a compellingly sinister turn which goes a good way to explaining how our ingénue heroine could fall for the fundamentally petty Gilbert Osmond, and Anthony Howell’s Ralph Touchett is a charismatic vessel for the cynical commentary of the outsider-ish invalid.
The play builds its themes of freedom and attachment with a slow surety of moral purpose, swelling beneath the sparkle and wit of the elegant dialogue. When the rending climax comes, it is all the more moving for the discretion with which it is played. Truly literary, truly theatrical, Portrait touches perfection. *****
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, THEATRE ROYAL BATH, THURS 3 JULY TO SAT 9 AUGUST