Trollope in Barsetshire
Riverside Studios Spring 2011
Edward Fox is an actor I could happily watch reading the telephone directory, so much charm and ease does he bring to every performance.
And if there are stray moments in this programme that approach that, it says more about my limited affinity for the novels of Anthony Trollope than about the actor.
Trollope was the 19th-century chronicler of clergy and gentry in an imagined cathedral city and its surrounding county. Deviser-director Richard Digby Day has selected moments from the six Barsetshire novels and put them in the frame of excerpts from Trollope's autobiography.
This allows Edward Fox to present Trollope as an amiable gentleman who enjoyed both writing and the trappings of success, and who is glad to introduce us to his favourite characters.
So, from The Warden we meet the title character, a remarkably honourable little clergyman who doesn't feel he deserves the very generous stipend of his position and shocks those around him by resigning.
The bishop's wife in Barchester Towers has a personal pipeline to heaven and sees to it that nothing happens in the diocese without her oversight and approval. And when that good lady dies a few volumes later, the poor bishop can't be sure whether what he feels is grief or relief.
What those selections emphasise is Trollope as social satirist, and Edward Fox skilfully winnows out every hint of humour or irony, delivering them with the barest suggestion of an arched eyebrow.
The actor is similarly subtle - and all the more effective for it - in his reading of the one dark selection, a passage from Framley Parsonage describing the body- and soul-destroying effects of poverty on a very poorly paid country parson.
Fox doesn't drive anything home, but just lets the quiet anger of the writing creep slowly into his delivery.
Trollope is not Dickens. He operates in miniatures and subtle suggestions easily missed in the grand scope of the novels, rather than in broad strokes.
And so, for all Edward Fox's talent and sensitivity, the selections from the novels repeatedly threaten to go on a little too long after making their little points, and it is at those moments that the actor is in greatest danger of losing us.
I am glad to be shown that there are subtleties to Trollope I didn't see in my own reading. I am very glad, as always, to witness the grace, skill and intelligence of one of my favourite actors.
And, unless you are more attuned to Trollope's vision than I, I think it will be the actor, more than the novelist, who will make this a pleasurable evening.
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of Trollope In Barsetshire - Riverside Studios 2011