Demi Monde

Demi-Monde is the third and final play of the ‘Desire and Destruction’ season by Love & Madness.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around William Morris (Simon Yadoo), an artist based in London during the 19th century and the febrile social and political environment of the time.

The play opens with an introduction to Morris’s office, with guests including Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a delightfully languid Jonathan Warde) and Edward Burne-Jones (an energetic Carl Prekopp). Morris’s wife (a suitably tormented Candida Benson) is the object of Rossetti’s affections, and finds herself seduced by his advances despite the proximity of her reliable, solid husband. So far, so predictable, so Desperate Romantics. The ongoing affair between the two is the most tiresome aspect of the play, and feels tacked on.

However the play kicks up several gears when it tackles Morris’s politics. Despite his comfortable upbringing, he developed a great sympathy for the plight of those oppressed by the ‘great dragon’ of capitalism in the Victorian era. We are reminded that this was a time when there was no coherent ideology of opposition, a time where socialism was struggling to find an identity.

We follow Morris’s attempts to flesh out a socialist ideology as we are introduced to characters who are more radical than he – the anarchists. International conspiracies, bomb plots and subversive police behaviour are the order of the day for those who take a more direct approach to confronting the great dragon.  

The strongest scene of the play comes when Morris and the poet Swinburne meet in a bar and discuss their conflicting views on the nature of art. For Morris, it is a utilitarian, socialist concern, for Swinburne it is an individualistic expression that exists solely for itself. There is great potential in this conflict, considering the likes of Eisenstein, Rodchenko and Shostakovich all had dilemmas in their attempts to marry art and utilitarianism. Morris’s arguments themselves resonate in the vacuity of our contemporary artists, frustratingly though this is not developed further.  

The dramatic force of Morris as a lead should come from not only this conflict, but from his position as a member of the bourgeoisie advocating the demise of his class. He could be Lear-like, a man torn asunder by his ideas. But he comes across as a ditherer, a gentle buffoon. His beliefs are disparaged for being too utopian. Morris (and his anarchist doppelganger) are portrayed as failing, as betraying their cause and comrades. Intentional or not, the effect is to disparage their attempts and the whole enterprise of social change.

The problem is a surfeit of ideas. The play attempts to grapple with the relationship between society and art. But it also reminds us that the economics of exploitation is nothing new, and the exploitation of those who serve it remains a constant. Equally, Victorian London’s fears of the enemy within, of the foreign radical element in our midst, echoes contemporary concerns. But it is an echo dimmed by the play’s tumult of ideas.

The play falls victim to its own argument of the nature of art. It cannot decide if it is a didactic work, or if it is art for art’s sake. The demimonde used to refer to those artists who failed to achieve, who were on the margins of society. Perhaps Morris the man deserves better than such a footnote.  

Demi Monde plays at Riverside Studios until March 17. Tickets are £12, concessions £10

Riverside Studios
Crisp Road
W6 9RL

Box office: 020 8237 1111


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