Thunder Road Theatre Company, which originated at the University of Central Lancashire, but is now an associate company of Harrogate Theatre, might have been well advised to cut the word “swashbuckling” from advance publicity and to abstain from reminding us that Alexandre Dumas’ novel runs to 1,000 pages. 75 minutes stage time, a cast of two and a production geared to Harrogate’s 70-seater Studio Theatre all mean that this has no real pretensions to be a version of The Count of Monte Cristo.
What it is, however, is oddly compelling, an interrogation of the original that really makes sense only to someone who knows the novel, but which has a dream-like (or nightmarish) power to those of us with little idea who the characters are or what the furious accusations relate to. Helen Tolson and Terence Mann's adaptation begins with a prisoner in solitary confinement for an unspecified crime. Initially wordless, the production flashes images of him in poses of suffering in between sudden blackouts. This is not Edmond Dantes, hero of The Count of Monte Cristo, but Edward Dayton. When he discovers a copy of the novel, the two characters begin to merge, aided by the mysterious intervention of Abbe Faria, Dumas’ mad priest. Eventually he is able to avenge himself (or dreams he is able to) on Dantes’ three main enemies – or someone who represents all three.
Unlike several modern small-scale adaptations of classics, The Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t parody the original, aside from the occasional “I’ve read the book” quip. Nor does it tell the story. Rather it uses Dumas’ novel as a resource to examine themes of freedom, imprisonment and revenge. The versatile Terence Mann directs a performance that is physically challenging, despite the lack of swordsmen swinging from chandeliers, with Dayton being hurled on stage at the opening setting the tone. Mann is also responsible for a splendidly integrated sound plot and, for all I know, the effective, but uncredited, lighting. Alex Swarbrick’s ingenious design completes the overall effect. Alex Moran and Scott Hodgson act with precision and commitment, Hodgson as the prisoner/avenger, Moran taking a different cluster of parts in each half, each of them especially adept in exploring degrees of desperation.
The Count of Monte Cristo plays Harrogate Theatre Studio until 11 May, then tours to seven further venues, mostly in Yorkshire: