Monday, 04 July 2022

Victorian drama is not all plain sailing

We had the sense of being all at sea from the very beginning of this show, thanks to a clever stage set.

Lady Anna: All At Sea
Theatre Royal, Windsor
Monday, September 5
We had the sense of being all at sea from the very beginning of this show, thanks to a clever stage set, where books were strung on ropes from the ceiling, creating the sense of an underwater space, and also scattered around the floor as if they were flotsam and jetsam, then deployed as seating and stepping stones. The audience was taken on two simultaneous journeys, neatly wrapped around each other in a look at Victorian society, both fictional and real.

It's 1871 and much-feted author Anthony Trollope is on a ship bound for Melbourne, accompanied by his wife Rose and maid Isabella, while simultaneously writing his novel, Lady Anna, thus keeping himself occupied for the long days spent at sea. As he chews over the details of the characters and plot, his fellow passengers are intrigued. As we travelled both through Lady Anna's story and with Trollope, these "sea changes" between the story of the novel and the discussions on-board ship were cleverly defined with a ship's horn and engine running in the background for the ship scenes.

In a thorough dissection of the value placed on titles and money in a society riddled with class divides, Trollope presents us with a kind of Mexican standoff, whereby a young man named Frederick stands to inherit the title Earl Lovel, but conversely Anna Lovel is in line for the actual wealth. The deceased Lord Lovel may or may not have legitimately fathered Anna, whose mother, Countess Lovel, has avoided penury by the generosity of tailor Thomas Thwaite. In turn Thwaite's son Daniel is well-acquainted with Anna. It seems clear to Frederick's family, Countess Lovel and lawyer Sir William Patterson that this could all be tidied up by a convenient marriage arrangement but things aren't all that simple.

With the actors stepping between their two roles throughout, as characters in the novel and as travellers on the ship, this could have been confusing, but all the roles were clearly delineated and in some cases caricatured. Once the premise had been outlined, we were carried along on a wave as the characters found their sea legs, with a tension building up as to the outcome, all the while Trollope divulging little plot arcs to his fellow guests. An American lady kept referring to him as "Mr Trollope" to rhyme with slope, while the passengers seemed to pressurize Trollope into providing an acceptable ending for his readers. Will Anna find happiness or will she be more of a people-pleaser?

Interestingly it seems Trollope's own background was one of genteel poverty, with parents from a high social class but without the corresponding means, making the storyline even more poignant. This light-hearted look at love and societal expectations must have felt very personal and come from the heart, as Trollope's real-life journey to Melbourne with his wife was to visit their son in his new life in Australia, a land free of class angst offering a fresh perspective and a more equitable, egalitarian future.

Until Saturday.

Review by Natalie Aldred

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