Like the best of English gardens – and where better to find them than in the west country – Peter Hall’s Bath residency always offers a delicious display of contrasting seasonal blooms. Hardy perennials residing happily beside latest arrivals. Already we’ve had a quick burst of vintage Peter Nicholls and Ibsen; Alison Steadman in Alan Bennett is still to come and before that home grown Faeries at the bottom of the garden engineered by puppeteers Blind Summit, playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Will Tuckett and ROH(Royal Opera House)2.
Right in the middle sits The Portrait of a Lady. Hailed as a companion piece to A Dolls House running alongside it and adapted by Nicki Frei from the Henry James novel, the only thing the two plays superficially seem to have in common (apart from the same actress in the leading role) is a central focus: a young woman’s journey to self-awareness. Their denouements, for example, are in stark contrast. Nora walks out on her family responsibilities (in recognition of her responsibility to herself as a human being). Isabel, au contraire, returns to her far from lovely husband and stepdaughter.
In other respects, too, Portrait differs from A Dolls House. Frei has structured Portrait as a rewind mystery play, a bit like Pinter’s Betrayal. We start with the end, Isabel and Gilbert Osmond (Finbar Lynch) locked in resentful recrimination. Thence the action moves backwards and forwards until characters and their significance gradually fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle. Things become clearer.
The only problem with this highly ingenious arrangement – and in Peter Hall’s production quite wonderfully eliding scenes between Roman, Florentine, English garden and townhouse settings courtesy of Peter Mumford’s inspired lighting and back projections – is that ravishing as it is to look at, it remains largely undramatic. Neither James’s ironic, penetrating eye on a young American woman’s encounters with Old Europe nor her development from free independent spirit to trapped wifehood comes across as grippingly as one might have hoped.
Nevertheless this is still a rare commodity for these days - a work of art, carefully conceived, subtly wrought and beautifully played by the Peter Hall Company that James himself, a connoisseur of art above life, would no doubt have appreciated. In a strong company, Niamh Cusack as Gilbert’s ambivalent friend, Madame Merle, Susie Trayling as American journalist, Henrietta Stackpole and Anthony Howell as Isabel’s ailing friend, Ralph Touchett are outstanding. As for its heroine, in Catherine McCormack’s hands and Christopher Woods’ sumptuous gowns, she emerges as a woman not dissimilar to Nora – a similarity, perhaps, not quite intended. Mammoth parts both, I imagine seen in isolation, each would appear much more distinctive. A flawed but impressive gem.
- Carole Woddis