THE KNIGHT FROM NOWHERE/THE BELLS
by Andrew Shepherd/Leopold Lewis.
Park Theatre (Park 90) Clifton Terrace Finsbury Park N4 3JP To 19 December 2015.
Tue-Sat 7.45pm Mat Thu & Sat 3.15pm.
Runs 2hr 45min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7570 6876.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 25 November.
Fascinating glimpses of a Knight in the Victorian theatre.
Nowadays it can be hard to recall that for most of history actors were socially despised, rogues and vagabonds and in the case of the women often worse. It was an amazing advance when Henry Irving, as Somerset-born John Brodribb rechristened himself, was knighted in 1895, bringing a social respectability unsurpassed until Laurence Olivier became a Life Peer in 1970.
Olivier had a place in the Establishment, running the National Theatre; Irving’s maturity was spent running an unofficial theatre of the nation, using his own resources, financial and imaginative, for Shakespearean productions, while his most famous contemporary role was Mathias in Leopold Lewis’s The Bells.
Andrew Shepherd ingeniously follows an 80-minute run through Irving’s life with a condensed version of The Bells, in which respected Burgomeister Mathias is reminded by the imagined sound of sleigh-bells of his guilty secret, the murder of a rich Jew in the snow fifteen years before. Under hypnosis he re-enacts the crime. Irving’s diminutive figure, full force on the Lyceum’s vast stage, after a build-up of melodramatic verbiage, must have been mesmerising in this scene.
The dedication behind his success appears in The Knight from Nowhere. Surviving severe stage-fright, walking-out, mid-carriage-drive, on the wife who suggested he quit acting, studying his great Shakespearean roles; the picture of determined dedication continually builds.
The most difficult job for a good actor is to play a great one. Shepherd has to settle for confidence in developing the clear narrative of his play and then a sense of Mathias’ horror. Lucy Foster’s production seeks to capture the hyperbolic acting fashionable and necessary in large Victorian theatres, but false-seeming in a small space.
The sense of falsity increases as performances are pitched at different levels, some taking rhetoric further than technique can follow – though in one case the exaggeration creates its own bubble of barnstorming verisimilitude.
Zahra Mansouri’s set frames matters with Victorian pastiche. And, whatever the limitations, Shepherd has created an informative, evocative view of Victorian theatre’s first Knight, ironically most moving when most still, at the very end, with Irving’s burial described, his statue spotlit in a tableau.
Nelly Moore: Alethea Stevens.
Annette: Alexandra Parry.
Henry Irving/Mathias: Andrew Shepherd.
Ellen Terry: Angela Ferns.
Bram Stoker/Christian: Garry Summers.
E D Davis/George Bernard Shaw/Mesmerist: John-Paul Conway.
Mary Brodribb/Catherine: Lynsey-Anne Moffat.
Leopold Lewis/Hans: Richard Woolnough.
Sozel: Rosemarie Lovegrove.
Florence O’Callaghan: Rosie Frecker.
Clerk/President of the Court: Simon Blake.
W H Chippendale/Father Walther: Will Seaward.
Director: Lucy Foster.
Designer:/Movement Zahra Mansouri.
Lighting: Ben Cowens.
Sound: Jo Walker.
Voice coach: Yvonne Morley.