Theatre Royal Windsor (venue)
20 March 2019 (released)
21 March 2019
It’s most admirable to see an outfit like Rumpus bring new work to Windsor, and Richard Layton’s The Devil’s Bride is perhaps something of a challenge for this small company to bring off. Based on a story by the 19th century Irish gothic horror writer Sheridan Le Fanu, it is a dark tale of love, mystery and betrayal.
The set design does its job of immediately evoking a 17th century artist’s studio and we quickly find ourselves to be with the ambitious young painter Godfried Schalcken, making his way through the streets of Leiden. Bumping into confident Rose Achterberg soon leads him to the house of her uncle, the established portraitist Gerard Douw. Inevitably Godfried and Rose fall for one another, but fortuitous though this all is for Godfried, there is something not quite right in the Douw house…
Lighting and music is most effective in maintaining the aura of gothic mystery, and this is certainly a tale of darkness and shadows rather than one of outright horror. (I must admit I kept wishing for a small table on the stage, to avoid the need for glasses of wine to be balanced on the arm of the one chair.) John Goodrum clearly enjoys himself playing Douw, seemingly right at home in his leather boots and 17th century Dutch studio, as he tells the terrible tale of his rise and fall, while David Martin brings a believable ambitious naivety to the fortune-seeking Godfried. Natalie Griffin’s Rose is both vulnerable and ebullient, as she reflects on how a young woman was expected to make her way in the world, through marriage to a man of means, and how that conflicts with her desire to be herself and make her own choices. Douw says of his niece that she is “getting to the age where she must do what she’s told”.
While the first half successfully builds up atmosphere and tension, after the interval comes the opportunity to crank it up, yet I thought it didn’t quite succeed. Godfried and Rose hatch a plan of deceit, which might have been rendered more subtly so as to play out the intrigue for considerably longer. Mismatches in the viewpoints between different characters and those of the audience are the stuff of horror, and this should really have been dragged out to its limit.
Nevertheless this is an enjoyably dark piece of original theatre, not too scary, not too taxing, but intriguing, absorbing, and thoughtful, with its conflicted young woman, ambitious men, and it makes good use of its setting in the Golden Age of Dutch painting: “A veneer to hide what lies beneath, but what lies beneath is not destroyed and may show again.”