Gregory Murphy’s play, The Countess,
was well received in the US, playing for 634 performances. I fear, however, it will fare less well in the West End.
I suspect American audiences were charmed by the piece’s strange British world, which occupies a middle ground between the catty drawing rooms of Oscar Wilde and the tightly laced restricted passion of EM Forster. This faux ‘Englishness’ probably won't appeal to a British audience, though the central performance - which is the production’s saving grace - should.
Effie, the Countess of the title, actually existed. She was married to the essayist and orator John Ruskin, and the events of the play surround several months in the 1850s, which the couple spent in Scotland, accompanied by the artist John Everett Millais. Ruskin was a huge fan of Millais’ work, and Millais was to paint him. Over the space of the play, we witness the couple’s dysfunctional relationship - what Ruskin refers to as Effie’s ‘moods’, in fact her unhappiness in the face of his sexual rejection of her - and the blossoming of an inevitable love triangle.
Murphy has closely studied the history of these events, including letters from all the principal players, and often bits of dialogue sound ‘written’ rather than ‘spoken’ – as if from a letter, they sound rather too considered to be spoken in life. Some scenes feel cut short and their intensity is broken by Dewey Dellay’s musical interludes.
There's also a distinct difference between the first and second half, the first set in Scotland, the second in London. It’s in the second that we get a feeling of an attempt to emulate Wilde (an impossible task), in particular through the interactions of Ruskin’s parents and other periphery characters.
On the whole, the performances have a little too much of the stiff-upper-lip about them and a wooden, unnatural air. That is except for Alison Pargeter, who is excellent as Effie, incredibly touching, dignified and passionate. Hers is a searing performance that holds your attention throughout.
However, the real problem with Ludovica Villar Hauser’s production, and Murphy’s play, is that we're offered a version of this world that we know; the men are chauvinistic, the women at their mercy. There’s simply nothing new or challenging for an audience to discover.