The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood didn't just cause an aesthetic rumpus. They also had a scandalous habit of loving other chaps' wives. Last year at the Almeida, in The Earthly Paradise, we saw Rossetti in a ménage à trois with Mr and Mrs William Morris. Now, in Gregory Murphy's The Countess, we find Millais (Damian O'Hare) holed up in a cottage for three in the Trossachs, getting hot under the collar about Effie (Alison Pargeter), the unhappy spouse of John Ruskin (Nick Moran, pictured).
The aesthetic guru has commissioned Millais to paint his portrait, expecting him to don Turner's mantle as the next great British artist.
But Millais also wants to step into Ruskin's marital shoes. Effie's relationship with her critic-husband was, apparently, never consummated because he was appalled to discover, on his wedding night, that real women had pubic hair. She left him eventually.
This love triangle is clearly a classic Victorian romance with the patriarch misportraying his wife as a neurotic while himself being unnaturally prim. The trouble is Ludovica Villar-Hauser's production is, in the main, shockingly fifth rate. Pargeter, to her credit, manages to be sturdy and pained. But O'Hare can be tiresomely impetuous and Moran is merely lame. The Pre-Raphs would, surely, have laughed themselves sick over the set's faux plastic rocks and Murphy tells the story with all the smooth progression of a square wheel - ironically throwing in a mini-lecture on artistic perfection.
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