You have to admire the bravery of the folk at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. When you have the only surviving Regency playhouse in the country, the last thing you would normally do is start altering the fabric of the building, removing seats and making the auditorium into ‘theatre in the round’. Before the National Trust swoop, however, it is only a temporary alteration for their latest production, The London Merchant.
It may be the first time in its 191 years that the Theatre Royal has been used in the round but it turns out to be an inspired decision. The intimacy and atmosphere it creates transforms the theatre into a magical performance space with a wonderful relationship between actor and audience. The transformation works so well it is easy to forget the normal layout of the theatre and one hopes this will not be the last foray into this configuration.
George Lillo’s 1731 The London Merchant more than holds its own against the architectural backdrop, however. It may be approaching 300 years old but here is a tale that resonates strongly today. Young 18-year-old apprentice George Barnwell is seduced by Sarah Millwood, a courtesan who uses him to take revenge on the wider male population. Her plotting sees gullible George totally ensnared in her spider’s web until he’s willing to lie, steal and even murder to further his relationship with Millwood. This could easily turn into a preaching morality play but the conviction and realism of Lillo’s script instead paints the characters so strongly that it flows as a gripping human tragedy.
Colin Blumenau’s direction makes full use of the reconfigured space that draws the audience into the ever constricting circle of despair in which Barnwell finds himself. By necessity, in the round staging is minimalist in nature but designer Kit Surrey uses a palate of predominately black to create a sumptuous treat for the eye. Mark Howland’s atmospheric lighting lends an evocative atmosphere to the piece making great use of shadow and haze to delight the eye.
Acting in this close proximity to the audience needs great skill. Having the audience surround the stage adds to the challenge; however, it’s a challenge the cast rise to admirably. Anna Hope as spider Millwood and David Walmsley (pictured below) as prey Barnwell work well together, Hope practically spitting venom as she is cornered while Walmsley disintegrates as the impact of what he has done hits home. Other strong performances come from David Peart as the merchant of the title and Katie Bonna as Lucy the maid who realises she has to act to stop the tragic train of events.
The London Merchant is a remarkable rediscovery, parallels to its Shakespearean precursors are clear but it also show considerable development towards modern drama. In many ways it’s the missing link between the two eras. This is a double hit for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, a powerful restoration of a classic to the repertoire and a thrilling demonstration of the flexibility of the auditorium. Catch it while you can.