The first of Primavera’s season of revivals this year, The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, currently playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, tells a tale of love, idealism and scandal. Set in Venice in 1895, young widow Agnes Ebbsmith (Rhiannon Sommers) causes controversy with the pact she and married lover, Lucas Cleeve (Max Hutchinson), decide to live by: disregarding marriage as stifling and for ‘ordinary women’. As Cleve’s family intervene to coax him back to London to rekindle his political career, Mrs Ebbsmith must do what she can to hold on to him as well as stand by her ideals.
With the drama set almost entirely in a Venice hotel room, housed within the compact Jermyn Street Theatre, the claustrophobia that Mrs Ebbsmith feels, with the constant pressure she is put under to marry and be respectable, is palpable. Primavera has made an interesting choice to stage this piece about a woman bound by, and fighting against, the laws of her gender, at a time when the feminist movement is back and gaining speed, and issues of gender equality are frequently in the news. Indeed, the play’s most compelling moments arise when Mrs Ebbsmith apparently abandons her beliefs in fighting for women and workers’ rights, as well as her own staunch behaviours, to become the feminine ideal that Cleeve so craves: in turn becoming the very kind of woman she once scorned. This satisfying reversal keeps what is largely a dense, at times slow-moving, play intriguing.
Rhiannon Sommers holds the stage as Mrs Ebbsmith with a bold and impassioned performance; although occasional giveaway looks and more obvious choices did at times undercut the enjoyable ambiguity of the character by telling the audience what they may already have suspected, rather than allowing them to take a role in deciphering the play’s complexities. Lively and highly comic interchanges with Venetian servants, Nella (Sarah Madigan) and Antonio (Niccolo Curradi), often gave a welcome relief from the tension and more serious subject matter, their humour clear and distinct despite the audience’s language barrier.
However, despite some strong individual performances, generally the piece felt slightly stilted, if not at times, clumsy. This was only heightened by Cherry Truluck’s awkward and somewhat amateurish set design, which battled with, rather than made the most of, the slightly awkward playing space the Jermyn Street Theatre offers directors and designers. As such, a balcony which overlooked a canal felt like too far a stretch of the imagination where the back wall could be plainly seen. Equally, elsewhere on the set, the prop-heavy naturalism jarred somewhat with the slightly impressionistic backdrop, giving the feel that the production lacked a coherent vision that was thoroughly realised.
While the production itself falls slightly short in some areas, nonetheless, The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith is commendable for offering audiences a rediscovered classic that has a contemporary resonance, reflecting on a number of issues through the microcosm of unusual and colourful characters it examines.
The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith is playing the Jermyn Street Theatre until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.