Octavia makes an unlikely romantic heroine. She is earnest, strong-minded, somewhat plain, first seen excitedly resolving: "I shall pay off my father's debts - that will take six years!" John Ruskin, already by then a celebrated art critic and influential champion of Turner, takes an interest in the zealous young woman with artistic aspirations who dedicates her life to teaching under-privileged children and adults. He takes her on as his pupil, giving her the doomed task of copying Turner paintings, and in return she conceives an ardent passion for her patron and mentor.
However, it was not to be. Ruskin, an intellectual and visionary giant, was, it seems, a dwarf in love. As the programme tactfully reminds us, his marriage to Effie Gray was famously annulled in 1854 on grounds of non-consummation and, if we would believe Brooks, it was his thwarted infatuation with his pupil Rose De La Touche, 30 years his junior, which finally drove him to insanity.
There's something curiously innocent about a story in which every single character is disappointed in a great love, and not one of them is ever consummated. Spurned by Ruskin, Octavia seeks solace in her friendship with Sophia Jex-Blake, later a celebrated pioneer of medical education for women. But Sophia is offering more than friendship and never quite recovers from Octavia's horrified rejection. The suggestion, somewhat sentimentally, is that the noblest works of men and women are inspired by unhappy love for individuals rather than generosity for humanity in its general form. Ruskin's theories only make an appearance in brief outline, romantically sketched in.
Andrew Holmes's production is strangely cerebral in tone for such an anguished and emotional story, but this is quite appropriate to the subject. The production is perhaps guilty of being over-reverential to its protagonists, and sacrificing critical rigour for entertainment. Empty Space, Holme's company, is, like the National Trust, celebrating an anniversary - 10 years of good, solidly theatrical adaptations of classic literary works (Wilde, Shaw, Lawrence, Bunyan, Woolf, Stevenson) in a tradition inspired by companies like Red Shift, Shared Experience, even Cheek by Jowl.
Holmes's style has remained largely unchanged in that time, but has been honed by experience. He has a good cast (especially Peter Glancy as Ruskin, Philippa Williams as Octavia and Tom Coulthard as the novelist George MacDonald) and he leaves them with relatively little directional fuss. Brooks, a regular Empty Space collaborator, has produced a gentle, discreet play with engaging characters in sufficiently intriguing situations and enough witticisms to keep an audience happily ensconced for its two-hour duration.
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