Peter Dunne's Bride of Prejudice is very much a play of the age. Subtitled "The Marriage of Lord Byron", it less throws us back on the works of the man than shores up his scandalous celebrity: Byron as mad, bad and featured in Hello!.
Peter Dunne's Bride of Prejudice is very much a play of the age. Subtitled "The Marriage of Lord Byron", it less throws us back on the works of the man than shores up his scandalous celebrity: Byron as mad, bad and featured in Hello!. Thus it suits an age where many seem to be loathe to approach a work without first boning up on the "gory details" of the artist's private life.
The gory details here pivot around Byron's alleged sexual relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Dunne sets his play around 1812, and the poet (played by Callum Coates) is being pursued all over town by Lady Caroline Lamb (Phillipa Leon, spiralling wildly to make up ground in an underwritten role) and garnering the burden of a ruinous reputation. Seeking respectability, he elects to marry and proposes to the pious Annabella Milbanke (Kate Burdett). When he proves incapable of fidelity, and after scandalising his young bride with his sexual demands, things take a decidedly soapy turn.
The treacherously difficult basement space at Baron's Court is akin to the Open Air Theatre on an inclement night: although the first space is minuscule and the latter vast, both engender a sense of empathy with the actors as they surmount the difficulties of their environments.
But director Sarah Norman works miracles in the tight confines, creating a fast-flowing evening. From Coates, in particular, she encourages a close-up, nigh-on filmic detail well suited to the space.
More often than not, the space is exploited well, with the director turning its limitations into intimacy. But when the smaller roles of comedy maids, uppity whores and sex-crazed noblewomen register their presence, the space begins to stifle, and the play's weaknesses (characters as mere plot devices, for example) are exposed.
Kathryn Hamilton as Leigh is rather too prone to sultry looks into the middle distance as she speaks onstage with anyone but Byron, but works well when alone with Coates. Maggie McCourt's Lady Melbourne twinkles wickedly as the bitchy matchmaker. As Byron's confidante and partner in rabble rousing, Will Birch is louche as Hobhouse, and deliciously prurient doubling as Annabella's divorce lawyer, as he attends her tale of drunkenness and cruelty.
But the play is an irredeemably wordy one; full of naked, almost comic exposition - "Are you referring to Lady Caroline Lamb, Sir?" - with characters sitting alone reading letters aloud. Despite the play's limitations, the director and principal actors - Coates, in particular, a physical presence and vocally redolent of Samuel West - put forward a strong case for the London Fringe: compelling acting in an intimate space. No booking fees, either. Shame about the play.
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