By Kathy Park
‘They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve, / Young virgins might have visions of delight, / And soft adorings from their loves receive / Upon the honey’d middle of the night, / If ceremonies due they did aright’
Last night I went to watch The Eve of St Agnes by Antonia Goddard, a play based on Keats’s poem of the same name, which tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers, Madeline and Porphyro, who are united on the eve of St Agnes, when an old superstition is accidentally realised.
Walking into candlelit Prior’s Hall, with candelabras hung from the high ceiling and tapestry covered stone walls, from the night air, certainly prepared the audience for the performance.
Sitting face to face with the actors and the stage lighting shining behind us, we were submerged into their world.
The play opened with the Beadsman, played by Frederic Mollet, whose solemnity brought to life the figure in Keats’s poem.
Madeline was beautifully played by Elizabeth Johnson, while Phillipe Boshner was bold, yet sensitive as Porphyro.
The Baron Elroy, played by Hamish Clayton, was also impressive. Clayton showed great skill in manipulating his voice and facial expression, which at times verged on melodrama, but nevertheless made the audience burst out laughing.
Angela, played by Beatrice Vincent, stood out as both a great actress and a memorable character.
Vincent imitated the speech and mannerisms of an old nurse really well and was often really comic (such as when Angela tries to fight Porphyro).
She also conveyed the sincerity of her love and maternal care for Madeline, which was especially moving in the split-second of silence, when Porphyro tells her of his plan to take Madeline away with him, as well as in her final words to Madeline: “be happy”.
Goddard has expressed her worry that her play would merely be another retelling of Romeo and Juliet but, in spite of the similarities between the two plots, I felt that the play resembled the story of the famous star-crossed lovers in a different and unique way.
The Eve of St Agnes faithfully captures Keats’s poem. We are reminded that while the lovers enjoy their feast and sweet dreams, outside there is a storm blowing. “Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows / Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet / Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.”
Photograph: Antonia Goddard