Alexandre Dumas’ novel is a hefty one. We know so, because there are copies of it plonked on the table next to the programmes at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s also not technically a novel, but started life as a serialised novel, which puts the 1200 pages into perspective. Somewhat. No doubt that’s something we’re meant to be aware of before this production of The Count of Monte Cristo, the world premiere of a new version by Joel Horwood, begins.
The basic plot is ostensibly a simple revenge tale: on the eve of promotion to Captaincy and engagement with his childhood sweetheart Mercedes, young sailor Edmond Dantes, here played by Daniel Rigby, is wrongly incarcerated in an oubliette (those who have seen David Bowie’s fantastic film Labyrinth might get this without explanation; for those who haven’t, it’s a secret dungeon where you send people that you’d like to be eternally forgotten). After thirteen potentially soul-destroying years, during which he learns a host of languages, the powers of logic, and sword-fighting from a fellow prisoner, he eventually escapes, intent on wreaking the same misery upon the men who put him in Chateau D’If. If I were Mondego (the best friend who betrayed him, and married Mercedes), Villefort (the spectacled prosecutor) or Danglars (the ship’s first mate who dobbed in Dantes in the first place) I would be very worried right now.
It’s easy to see why there was need for those little hints in the Playhouse foyer, as before long, we are plunged into a world of intrigue and mystery, double-crossing characters popping up in the first few scenes, only to disappear abruptly, and re-emerge in the second half. With all the various characters played by an ensemble cast of six, the diagram in the programme indicating character relationships is incredibly helpful – in fact, almost essential.
But not entirely, as the characterisation in most cases is strong: differentiation between sinister, po-faced Danglars and Valentine Villefort, the sprightly, nutty daughter of Dantes’ prosecutor Villefort (the man who imprisoned him for so long) from Tilly Gaunt is crisp, her zany teenage wild child – clad in tartan tights with clashing pink dress - in particular eliciting snorts of amusement.
Daniel Rigby’s Dantes makes the progression from endearingly clumsy 19-year-old, to frustrated, near-mad prisoner number 34, to resolutely cold and calculating, self-professed avenger sent “from God”, with ease. Faria, his fellow prisoner in Chateau D’If, is idiosyncratically played by Duncan Wiseby, whose villainous Villefort in the second half is the perfect aristocratic insouciant, acting to protect his own interests whatever the cost.
Oliver Senton’s Mondego is a suitably suave militia man in youth, and bluff in middle age, comically moonlighting as Madame Danglars with bushy sidebars and a fetching, ribbon-laced hat. Albert Mondego - son of Mercedes and Dantes’ nemesis Mondego - is a loveably hapless young suitor for Valentine played by Pieter Lawman, and Polly Frame as his mother Mercedes makes a sparky role out of potentially drab character territory.
Musical director Heather Fenoughty has crafted some atmospheric musical additions which the cast perform with gusto, whether as an instrument-toting troubadour in a corner of the stage or incorporating the harmonious songs amidst the action. Movement director Lucy Hind's capering dance sequences in the second half add yet another appealing dimension.
There is a cross-cutting of styles in The Count of Monte Cristo that is charming, although not entirely consistent; the formal, period-dress of characters in the second half is spiced up with eye-wateringly bright silks in watermelon green and blood orange, which nevertheless gives the suggestion of a puppet show in the second half –with a huge new set piece, from designer Barney George, that is cleverly opened and closed by Dantes’ servant Bertuccio - extra oomph. Joel Horwood’s entertaining dialogue likewise wanders between the formal and the colloquial, Valentine’s “likes” comically arrayed within the hauteur of her parents’ vocabulary.
The approach to filling in the plot – a necessity when cramming so much into the length of a normal production - can be quite inconsistent, with the projected headlines in the second half initially entertaining, and finally confusing, moving on too fast for my slow eyes to take in fully.
Nevertheless, director Alan Lane has done well with this fun, fast-paced whirligig of action, if at times the cross-pollination of styles is a little overwhelming.