Classic theatre seen in a new way

The London Merchant, Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, Until Saturday, October 16

DIRECTOR Colin Blumenau’s new production of 18th-century morality tale The London Merchant is performed in the round, on a glossy black floor fitted over the pit. A section of the audience is on the usual stage, creating a ground-breaking space for the actors.

It is a dramatic and exciting departure for Bury St Edmunds and one that should be repeated.

Blumenau has again delved into theatrical history to bring to life a 1731 work by George Lillo.

It is a tale of the seduction and betrayal of hapless 18-year-old merchant’s assistant George Barnwell, who begins as a chaste, noble creature, devoted to his master and friends.

David Walmsley succeeds in rendering believable Barnwell’s descent into thievery and murder, portraying accurately a young man torn between lust and what he knows is the wisest course.

At the centre of the web is Anna Hope’s luminescent Millwood, splendid in a shimmering silver gown. The seduction scenes are delicious as the quick-thinking temptress overcomes Barnwell’s objections to her schemes one by one.

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She is aided by maid Lucy - a nuanced performance by Katie Bonna - happy at first to help her mistress secure the money they both require.

David Peart is noble Thorowgood, powerful as the benefactor unwilling to comprehend that his charge is robbing him. His final confrontation with Millwood is captivating, as he looks for a fleeting moment as if he too could fall victim to her charms.

Sophia Linden is chaste Maria, secretly in love with Barnwell and, along with Chris MacDonald’s Trueman, holding mirrors up to the fallen Millwood and her accomplice.

Any play in the round has the problem that an actor can never face all the audience at the same time. On the first night many of Millwood’s lines became inaudible. From the stage it was hard to follow those speeches delivered towards the dress circle. As Millwood’s world unravelled and she became more stressed, her speech quickened, adding to the problem.

It was a shame: through Millwood, Lillo has much to say about women in a world where men hold all the economic cards. It also took the edge of what was nearly a very good performance indeed.

The play’s other problem is the number of times its thwack-between-the-eyes message is repeated.

For an 18th-century audience the idea that the wages of sin are death and damnation would not just have been a quaint historic notion, but part of their everyday lives. Perhaps in 1731 they would not have minded hearing it quite so many times from quite so many characters, in quite so many slightly different ways, in a final act that left some dying to see the gallows.

The lasting impression, however, is a dramatic one: the cleverly staged hangings producing a shocking finale to a production worthy of its place in a modern theatre. Millwood and Barnwell are just feet from the audience on the stage and as she delivers her final lines, Hope’s character cuts a hugely sympathetic, perhaps tragic figure.

Mark Crossley


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