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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Countess

How is it that all bachelors marry goddesses but husbands live only with women?
---- Ruskin
The Countess
Damian O'Hare As John Everett Millais, Alison Pargeter as Effie Ruskin and Nick Moran as John Ruskin
(Photo: Eric Richmond)
Before I write anything else, I want to comment on the greatness of John Ruskin as a philosopher and philanthropist, as a promoter of the appreciation of fine architecture, art history and art education. I consider it important that he is remembered for these lasting achievements rather than for the gossip surrounding his marriage and his relationship with a very young girl. The Countess comes to London after a remarkable run in New York which saw it transfer from off-off Broadway. Thousands of New Yorkers have seen and liked it. The director Ludovica Villar-Hauser has come back to her native UK with this play about some of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement but it is completely recast with English actors for it London premiere.

I suppose a straightforward biographical costume drama is rather rare on the West End stage nowadays but this is the second play about the marital infidelities of the Pre-Raphaelites in less than a year. The period crinolines and silk top hats are all very well done, there is steam from the railways but the Scottish set bears more than a passing resemblance to a hobbit hole with its shiny plastic rocks. Christopher Lione's designs for crinoline dresses for Lady Eastlake (Linda Thorson) and Effie Ruskin are the visual stars of the show. Like the overstuffed Victorian drawing room, this production of The Countess is full of furniture detail and discordant musical links between scenes.

Alison Pargeter is sweet and Scottish as Effie, but marriage to the dour and confused Ruskin (Nick Moran) grinds her down. She has to spend much of the play in misery, confined to the South London house with the Ruskins, her ghastly parents in law (Jean Boht and Gerald Harper) and her repressed husband and without the distraction of children. Only the visits of Lady Eastlake encourage Effie to find herself. Damian O'Hare is sincere as the young John Everett Millais but hardly the romantic hero. In fact I thought Damian O'Hare looks physically so very like the portrait of John Ruskin, straight reddish brown hair, defined nose, I wonder if the casting of the men would have worked better with their roles reversed. Nick Moran as Ruskin is as much depressed as repressed. Incidentally if you want to see Millais' representation of Mrs Ruskin (he called her the countess) then his painting of a Highland family The Order of Release shows us what Effie Ruskin looked like. Millais described her as an odd beauty, maybe what the French call oxymoronically a jolie laide.

I frankly found Gregory Murphy's dialogue as clunky as the nineteenth century steam railway engines. Take Ruskin's words to Effie recalling their visit to Italy, "I wish the world could always be Venice for you, but it can't." Given that much of the playscript was actually found in the letters and diaries of the participants, I can hear the playwright replying, "But Ruskin actually said that!" Maybe he did but I am also sure he did not intend his words to be heard by theatresfull of people. I am also not sure that viewing The Countess adds anything to our appreciation of the artistic importance of Millais and Ruskin, even if we were previously unaware of the "scandal" surrounding Ruskin's marriage.

The programme is well researched and has lots of background information on the characters in the play. I liked the device of an audience being repeatedly requested with Queen Victoria via her daughter Princess Louise by Effie's son to carry the final denouement of the play.

LINK TO REVIEW OF The Countess in New York The Countess

The Countess
Written by Gregory Murphy
Directed by Moises Kaufman

Starring: Nick Moran, Alison Pargeter
With: Deirdra Morris, Chris Garwood, Gerald Harper, Jean Boht, Edmund Kente, Linda Thorson, Damian O'Hare
Set Design: Jason Denvir
Costume Design: Christopher Lione
Music Composer: Dewey Dellay
Lighting: Doug Filomena
Sound: Dan Last
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 2313
Booking to 17th September 2005.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th June performance at the Criterion Theatre Piccadilly Circus London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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