I recently read a biography of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, so when I found out that ACS Random were going to perform two plays at the Park Theatre relating to Irving I was thrilled, especially as I really enjoyed their Victorian Hamlet last year. The production is a double bill: the first piece, The Knight From Nowhere, written by Andrew Shepherd, is a dramatic biography of the actor while the second, The Bells by Leopold Lewis, was a huge hit for Irving in the nineteenth century. He performed it throughout his life and indeed, it was following a performance of The Bells in Bradford that he suffered his fatal stroke.
Directed by Lucy Foster, the production impressively conveys the atmosphere of the Victorian theatre in a tiny space and on a (presumably) small budget. “Gaslights” line the front of the stage, with a painted wooden backdrop transformed for the second play by the use of rich red curtains. The two plays work separately, but together they form a kind of hymn to Irving’s life and work.
In The Knight From Nowhere, Irving arrives on a stage, empty except for a priest, and realises that he is dead. Examining his life, we see how he was destined for a career in the law before defying his mother to pursue an acting career. Changing his name from John Henry Brodribb, he began by playing small parts in Sunderland and beyond before The Bells brought him fame and acclaim in 1871. Alongside his career, we see the development of his complex personal life: his marriage to Florence O’Callaghan ended unhappily and he developed a close relationship with the actress Ellen Terry. After spending his life trying to reach the top of his profession, Irving asks himself, was it all worth it?
I imagine it would be very difficult to convey the Victorian style of acting without descending into farce, and The Knight From Nowhere doesn’t always succeed. Andrew Shepherd seemed too over-the-top at times, and his performance was comic instead of affecting. On the other hand, there were times when he managed to vividly convey Irving’s charisma and talent. I particularly liked the scene in which Irving plays Hamlet for the first time: Shepherd’s performance, as well as the remarks made by cast members acting as the audience, really brought home just how revolutionary Irving’s acting was.
The supporting cast were generally impressive: Rosie Frecker was convincing as Florence, while Angela Ferns was a bit too diva-like as Ellen Terry, though I think this is an issue with the play rather than with Ferns’ performance as such. Though the play was genuinely funny in parts, I did sometimes think it was played for laughs when it should have been more serious.
The second piece, The Bells, is about a burgomaster, Mathias, who is haunted by a murder he committed several years before. He can hear the sound of bells when no one else can, and hallucinates the ghost of the man he has killed. Eventually he is driven mad by guilt. This play fitted Victorian taste perfectly but is perhaps less appealing to a modern audience. Nevertheless, this shortened version is reasonably gripping and does convey some of the power of the original.
Despite some misgivings, overall I thought this was a hugely entertaining evening and a lovely tribute to Irving: especially the rather moving epilogue. I’m looking forward to seeing what ACS Random come up with next year.