The domestic lives of artists from Stanley Spencer to Vincent van Gogh have propelled such plays as Pam Gems’ Stanley and Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton to compelling illustrations on how their lives and work intersected. These plays worked on a larger canvas, so to speak, than just one or the other area, casting interesting speculations on their lives (based on known biographical facts) to shine a new light on their art.
Peter Whelan seeks to adopt the same technique in his play The Earthly Paradise, receiving its world premiere at the Almeida, but somehow he is so riveted by the personal story of the intense friendship between two artists and poets of the pre-Raphaelite set, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that their art is relegated to the periphery, treated as an abstract to be philosophised over rather than actually engaged with or properly illustrated.
The play instead seeks to compel us with the collisions and collusions that followed the joint tenancy they took up in 1871 of a summer house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, and the consequences of their competing claims on a woman who was the wife of one and the muse (and possibly mistress) of the other.
But when the first thing one of them says to her when she breathlessly first appears, “You always gather a certain luminous intensity when you run up the stairs,” the ominous sound of clunky, over-ripe dialogue is already in the air. And sure enough, it’s confirmed a minute later when their bizarre ménage-a-trois is confirmed with the statement to her, “How could two men be closer? We both have a share in your heart.” (Where’s Andrew Lloyd Webber when you need him to boost such sentiments with a reassuring burst of strings and brass?)
Whelan also has considerable trouble disguising what in a musical might be
recitative: the imparting of facts. Here, the woman is lectured (though of course it’s really the audience who are being instructed) on facts about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that she would surely already know.
It’s a tall order to make this come to theatrical life, and Robert Delamere’s production tries to but cannot disguise the lack of it. Nigel Lindsay as Morris and Alan Cox as Rosetti are sincere but mostly as dull as each other as uneasy friends and rivals in love. Saffron Burrows, meanwhile, brings height (she’s easily the tallest person on stage) but not depth to the proceedings. With her face pressed in a virtually unvarying expression of pained bemusement, and a voice that is monotonously on the edge of breathy hysteria, she also lacks variety. So does the deadly earnest play.