There's a healthy
degree of irony wrapped up in the title of Tony Ramsay's latest
play for Eastern Angles. The Long Life and Great Good
Fortune of John Clare is, on one level, a biographical drama
about the early 19th century Northamptonshire poet, a farm labourer
with acute mental problems, whose verse was appreciated by leading
figures of the late Georgian-early Victorian period, and whose malady
received what was for the period sympathetic treatment.
That's just one part of the story we're given, however. Ramsay introduces us first to a psychiatric patient, a middle-aged man called John with a fixation on the music and lyrics of Neil Diamond as well as his namesake's poetry. John is visited
by a doctor called Melody whose partner is trying to interest various
television-programme commissioners of the viability of a
drama-documentary about Clare – never mind the facts, just look at
the possibility for showing lots of sex, social deprivation and
Very subtly, the
various layers and strands of the stories mesh together. Yes, we
learn a lot about Clare and hear extracts from his poems but we are
also drawn in to the human elements. John – this applies to both of
them – is trapped by the fragility of his mind and by a desire for
reciprocated love. Melody is torn between her responsibilities as a
psychiatrist and her knowledge that her personal relationship is
drifting onto the rocks. Rafe, her partner, won't let accuracy get in
the way of a good story.
Director Ivan Cutting
gives his three players space to flesh out their multiple roles.
Richard Sandells as John is immensely moving as both his characters
try to simultaneously break out of and seek security within their
mental torment. Mental illness – just like the creative process itself – is not an easy thing to show onstage
(or on film, for that matter) but Sandells makes it horrifyingly
credible but at the same time immensely moving.
Louisa Mai Newberry plays Melody, Clare's child-carrying, poverty-bearing wife Patty, and one of the society women who invited Clare into their drawing-rooms. Henry Devas is success-fixated Rafe and Skrimshire, one of the enlightened doctors who treated Clare and ensured financial support for him. There's a simple platformed set that cleverly allows for rapid costume changes designed by James Turner.