If anything defeats the Belgrade's valiant attempt at a staging, it is the story's complexity: Collins has a marked gift for spinning out suspense. In adapting the slowly unfolding novel for the stage, Philip Dart and Val May, who also directs, focused on the unfinished play - in effect, a confession - left among her effects by a mysterious foreign countess (Susannah York), recounting the ghoulish goings-on in a palazzo overlooking the lagoon.
Alexander McPherson's single set serves rather well, fusing the look of a Sickert-like Victorian theatre and a Venetian palace. Here, the actor-manager Sir Francis Westwick (William Gaunt) is rehearsing a play with his not altogether willing cast. Two of the performers, Westwick's potty wife (Lynette McMorrough) and the amiable Albert Denny (Neil France), take on a clutch of roles - fussing nurse, thick-accented maid, doctor, lawyer, hotelier - with shambolic results.
Gaunt is a seasoned National Theatre performer whose magnificent delivery, assured presence and shrewd dramatic know-how easily command a stage. Yet, despite his best efforts, we encounter only mock-suspense in the first half. One of the script's neater touches is the way rehearsal chit-chat and the play-within-a-play fold into each other unexpectedly, with actors reassuming character when you least expect it.
It can be effective: on several occasions, the device markedly heightens intensity. Yet the repeated intrusion of comedy (usually banal comedy) too easily distracts. There are few moments of real energy, and May's direction is scarcely what you might term electrifying. The few stage effects are pretty feeble, and Matt Drury's lighting only fair. The plot becomes such an impenetrable muddle that even intrepid sleuths may find it difficult to keep their eye on the ball.
On the night I saw it, however, the audience persevered and were arguably rewarded later on. Joanna Croll, who plays the dead man's inamorata, Agnes, like a youthful heroine straight out of Chekhov or Ibsen, is an honest, engaging young actress with clear Stratford potential. The self-admittedly feckless hero (Dominic Kemp) makes a reasonably good stab at his haunting experience in the palazzo's ghostly bedchamber. And near the close, after some nasty goings-on with a pair of sinister caryatids, York - who moves appallingly, sports a muddle of an accent, seems curiously cast and has a near-disastrous first half as the fatalistic Countess Narona - comes up with an eerily impressive set-piece denouement. It won't exactly chill you, but it does, inexplicably, engage you.
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