THE LONG LIFE AND GREAT GOOD FORTUNE OF JOHN CLARE
by Tony Ramsay.
Eastern Angles Tour to 18 May 2013.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 8 May at Bressingham Village Hall.
Play of cumulative power with an intense central performance.
Madness intrigued the Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare. Alan Bennett knew the ‘Madness’ of his George III was porphyria, a condition with physical causes. But George III’s physicians had no such idea. R D Laing located the source of madness in the society which defined its members as mad.
Insanity imposed by society was Edward Bond’s approach to John Clare in his fine 1975 play The Fool. Now Tony Ramsay returns to Eastern Angles with a new script about the north Northamptonshire poet, born in 1793, who spent many years in an asylum, yet who had aristocratic patrons and friends supporting him, a lifelong ideal love and a wife of several decades, before he died in 1874.
He walked home from the Essex asylum, in determination or desperation. There was determination and depression in a long life that brought friends if not contentment.
Meanwhile, a 21st century patient, John, identifies himself variously with Neil Diamond and John Clare. Psychiatrist Melody researches the poet to understand the patient, while her partner seeks to turn Clare’s story into romanticised semi-documentary, if any TV channel still commissions such stuff.
As characters 19th-century and modern gather round a table, Melody reads a massive biography of the poet, though it’s her glib partner Rafe who reveals the most important key to the poet’s melancholia, a biographical fact Melody hadn’t noticed in her voluminous volume.
It’s this that finally frees today’s John from his Clare obsession, as he faces the truth hidden psychologically in his unconscious mind, linking him in two ways to Clare.
It’s a strong ending, though handled in a way more theatrically effective than dramatically consistent. Ramsay’s play, in Ivan Cutting’s faithful production, works doggedly through a first half establishing all the connections before setting them alight in a second act of increasing intensity.
Throughout, Richard Sandells’ John moves, in speech or silence, between strength and vulnerability in the flicker of a moment, as at the flash of a synapse. Often he sits still as people of his own day or ours stand around discussing him. It’s a deep-impact performance in an intriguing story.
Rafe/Skrimshire: Henry Devas.
Melody/Patty/Mrs Emmerson/Flowerseller: Louise Mai Newberry.
John/John Clare: Richard Sandells.
Director: Ivan Cutting.
Designer: James Turner.
Lighting: Penny Griffin.