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Quality cast compensate for Nagy's confusing Letter

Review by David Munro

NATHANIEL Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an attack on ethical bigotry and hypocrisy. It is a long and sprawling novel, better known, I suspect, on the other side of the Atlantic than here so condensing it for the stage is quite a task.

One I fear that was too much for the dramatist / director Phyllis Nagy. What appears on the Chichester Minerva’s stage is very much a potted version which loses a lot of the power and passion of the novel.

What is more, it is confusing as to the relationship between the characters and I had to explain to my companion who had not read the book that the doctor who appears in the first act is, in fact, the husband of Hester Prynne, the 'heroine' of the play, as this fact is not made clear until well into the second act.

The plot, for those of you who like my companion are unversed in American Literature, concerns Hester Prynne, a married woman who, in the absence of her husband, has given birth to an illegitimate daughter and is forced as a result to wear a red “A” for adultery on her dress for the rest of her life (the Scarlet Letter).

Her husband returns and, in the guise of a doctor, sets out to discover and punish the father of the child who is, in fact, the local vicar, Arthur Dimsdale.

Hester begs her husband to relinquish his quest for vengeance and is humiliated by him. The vicar goes mad and dies and Hester devotes herself to good works and is re-established in the community.

Phyllis Nagy uses the dramatic device of the daughter, Pearl (Katherine Tozer), narrating as an adult her mother’s story, which is re-enacted by the cast in a series of set rather comic-book type scenes.

The establishment is represented by the Governor (brilliantly played by Martin Duncan, the artistic director of the theatre) and a Mistress Hibbins, vindictively portrayed by Zoe Waites.

The common folk are represented by Barry McCarthy as Master Brackett who carries out whatever role is required of him - gaoler, sexton, vox poluli, etc.

The main protagonists, Elizabeth McGovern, as Hester Prynne, Jo Stone-Fewings, as Arthur Dimsdale, and Alan Williams, as the “Doctor” Roger Chillingsworth, carry the weight of the production on their shoulders.

The first act did not work for me, I found it discursive, scrappy and unhelpful in setting the scene for the dénouements in the second act.

There, however, the cast came into their own with some very strong and moving scenes making up for what had gone before.

Elizabeth McGovern made Hester a powerful figure, undeterred by her punishment and powerful in her relationships with her husband and lover.

She was particularly effective when required by her husband to humiliate herself before him proving that despite his cruelty, her pride and spirit were unconquered. A moving and very telling performance.

Similarily, Jo Stone- Fewings avoided what could have been a caricature of the hypocritical parson, and created a sad and distraught man torn between his desires and his religion and in the end defeated by both.

His physical and mental breakdown, where he scrabbles like a dog in the graveyard which could in other hands have been ludicrous, was made by him believable and tragic.

Mr Stone-Fewings is certainly an actor I shall look out for in the future if he continues to give as good a performance as he did in this flawed play.

Roger Chillingworth’s enigmatic part in the tragedy was ambivalent and not helped by the obscurity of the character as delineated by Ms Nagy.

Nonetheless Roger Williams, again in the second act, made him a twisted and malevolent being whose moral defeat at the hands of Hester was inevitable, another powerful performance re-creating Hawthorne’s character persuasively.

Pearl is a thankless role and Katherine Tozer had to overcome a costume and make-up which made her look like a 20th Century punk. An unnecessary anachronism in a play which depended on its historical Bostonian puritanical setting for its credibility.

Despite this handicap, Miss Tozer makes Pearl an unhappy girl whose nature is adversely affected by the cruelties inflicted on her mother.

The rather nebulous supporting characters do what they can to flesh out the tale. As I have already indicated, Martin Duncan’s governor made his presence felt with the minimum of assistance from the script and I hope his standing down as artistic director will not prevent us from seeing him on the stage again in the future.

Zoe Waites makes the voice of puritanical disapproval resound and Barry McCarthy makes the common man suitably sympathetic.

All in all, as you would expect from this company, the acting makes the play. I was not all that impressed by Ms Nagy’s direction of her own script as it tended to be oddly lit and strangely noisy, emphasising the comic book aspect of her treatment of the novel and she must thank her cast for the overall pleasure I found in this production.

If you can weather the first act, the rest is plain sailing and well worth the trip. I am glad I saw it and I think you will be as well.

The Scarlet Letter, adapted from the novel of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Phyllis Nagy.
Director - Phyllis Nagy.
Designer – Peter McKintosh.
Lighting - Paul Pyant.
Sound - Gareth Fry.
CAST: Elizabeth McGovern; Katherine Tozer; Jo Stone Fewings; Allan Williams; Zoe Waites; Martin Duncan; Barry McCarthy.

In Repertory until September 8, 2005.
Minerva Theatre
Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6AP.
Box Office: 01243 781312

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