Oh, dear. The historical interest of Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort, a rip-roaring 1800 tragedy of inexplicable motivation and lifeless iambic pentameters, far outweighs its dramatic viability or indeed the posturing, tone-deaf production thrown at it by Imogen Bond.
One feels dismal about being so rude, as Baillie’s play was first performed at Drury Lane by John Kemble and Sarah Siddons (it was a failure) and then revived by the defining tragedian of the age, Edmund Kean, in 1821.
Baillie herself, a wealthy spinster of Scottish Presbyterian origins who lived in Hampstead until she died in 1851, was highly rated by Walter Scott and Lord Byron. But anyone who invokes Shakespearian tragedy by pumping up the melodrama – “Let me but once upon his ruin look, then close mine eyes for ever” -- is asking for trouble, or at least this review.
Justin Avoth in the title role simply doesn’t find the right tonal groove or grandeur. His moodiness is piecemeal, his gestures half-hearted. De Monfort hates a chap called Rezenvelt (Ben Nealon) but we never know why. Perhaps he kicked his sandcastle over or stole his Action Man.
When De Monfort’s sister Jane (Alice Barclay in the Siddons role) shows up, we are still denied access to her brother’s “secret troubles,” and any chance that this might become a pent-up ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, with a buried incest theme, or even a weird early version of Noel Coward’s sexual triangle Design For Living is scuppered by the play’s emotional coyness.
What must have been great “scenes” at Drury Lane – the society ball, the retreat to a religious enclave of nuns and monks, the discovery of a stricken corpse, the sad finale of two stretcher cases side by side in perennial enmity -- just seem slight and silly. Avoth dips his toe into madness and indicates some minimal affinity with Macbeth, beset by night shrieks and noises, covered in blood, his shirt undone, his gaze on fire.
You can see what Kemble and Kean might have been on about. But that’s as far as it goes. Sam Dowson’s design seems more twee than his usually inventive efforts at this address, and the full array of unsullied striped frock coats and virgin satin dresses make the cast look like waxworks. And for some of them, believe me, that’s a compliment.