The passionate love match between Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett has been well-documented in plays like Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Virginia Woolf’s novella Flush. MacDonald’s play How do I love thee? shows us a completely different side of the couple post elopement. Barrett, it seems, was a drug addict, chained to laudanum, morphine and ether. While the drugs allowed her to give free reign to her imagination, money concerns and his wife’s addiction created a writer’s block for Browning. It is a very dark side to what has long been considered a storied romance.
MacDonald certainly has a flair for language. The first act deals with the lovers’ correspondence and meeting, and is written in an impressive heightened poetic style. The problem is, the play is overwritten, and the language itself becomes a burden, weighing down the act. If there was ever a case of less is more, it is the first act of this play. It doesn’t help that the actors seem to be all on one note.
The second act, however, is compelling theatre as the relationship begins to unravel. MacDonald has provided many opportunities for mood changes which create the rising tension and conflict so necessary to fashion good theatre. Apparently the play has been extensively re-written since its debut in Calgary in 2010, and it would be interesting to see that script in light of this production. Was it less is more?
Where the play excels is in its theatrical values. The cast is superb – Irene Poole as Elizabeth, Matthew Edison as Robert, Nora McLellan as Elizabeth’s maid Wilson, and David Schurmann as Elizabeth’s cousin John who is also a patron of the arts. Poole, in particular, gives a performance of a lifetime as the troubled Elizabeth with her rollercoaster up/down existence. She is truly one of this country’s greatest actors. Edison’s changeover from passionate lover to conventional husband is deftly executed, while old pros McLellan and Schurmann play their secondary roles with taste and refinement.
Ken Gass’ direction moves seamlessly through the shifting scenes and time progressions. He has been particularly clever in the first act as the couple recite their letters to each other, criss-crossing through designer Shawn Kerwin’s clever set using the same writing table and chaise lounge in a choreography of near misses.
The play is certainly interesting material. It just needs a good editor to pare down the first act.
(How do I love thee? runs at the Berkeley Theatre Upstairs until Feb. 22.)