The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Stage Production
Just a few months after Notes from a Small Island, it was back to one of my local theatres, The Watermill, for the stage adaptation of another book club selection, this time the Victorian true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize (now called the Baillie Gifford Prize) for non-fiction in 2008.
I must have read the book in 2009, the year after it first came out, and while I had the best intentions of rereading it in time for our book club meeting earlier this month, I didn’t even manage to skim it. I remembered one fact alone, the method of murder, which is not surprising as it was particularly gruesome: A young boy had his throat slit and was stuffed down the privy. But that was all that had remained with me. My husband filled me in on the basics and the discussion, held at our house, reminded me of the rest. We then made it a book club outing to the theatre.
The crime took place in late June 1860 at the Wiltshire home of the Kent family: the patriarch, a factory inspector; his four children from his first marriage; his second wife, formerly the older set’s governess; and their three young children. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate, was one of London’s first modern detectives and inspired Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Constance Kent, 16, later confessed to the murder of her three-year-old half-brother, Saville, motivated by anger at her stepmother for replacing her mentally ill mother, but uncertainty remained as to whether she had acted alone.
The play was very well done, maintaining tension even though there was a decision to introduce Constance as the killer immediately: the action opens on her and Mr Whicher in her cell at Fulham Prison in the 1880s. This is an invented scene in which he has come to visit, begging her to tell him the whole truth in exchange for him writing a letter to try to secure her early release. (She appealed four times but ended up serving a full 20-year sentence.)
Cold, stark lighting and a minimal set of two benches against a backdrop of steel doors and a mullioned window evoke the prison setting, with only the subtle change to warmer lighting indicating flashbacks as Constance and Whicher remember or act out events from 20 or more years before. These two remain on stage for the entirety of the first act. Four other actors cycle in and out, playing Kent family members and various other small roles. For instance, the bearded middle-aged actor who plays Mr Kent also appears as a coroner giving a precis of Saville’s autopsy – he mentions Collins and Dickens, but the evolution of the Victorian detective is, by necessity, a much smaller element of the play than it was in the book.
It’s a tiny theatre, but projections on a screen (such as a sinuous family tree) and a balcony, used for wordless presence or loud pronouncements, made it seem bigger than it was. Saville himself is only depicted as a mute figure on that upper level, in the truly spooky scene that closes the first act. I remember when the Watermill put out a discreet call for child actors, warning parents about the sort of content to expect. Three children play the role (plus one other bit part) in rotation. Pulsing violin music enhanced the feeling of dread, and each act was no more than 45 minutes, so the atmosphere remained taut.
A missing nightdress – presumably blood-stained – as well as her own father’s hunch, were among the main evidence against Constance, so Whicher did not secure a conviction at the time and was publicly ridiculed for his failure to crack the case. That and his own loss of a child are suggested to be behind his obsession with tying up loose ends. While Constance expresses regret for her actions and calmly takes him through the accepted timeline of the murder, she refuses to give him anything extra.
The second act delves into what happened next for Constance: living among nuns in France and then in Brighton, where she decided to confess, and then relocating to Australia, where she worked in a halfway house for lepers and troubled youth, as if to make up for the harm she caused earlier in her life (and she lived to age 100!). This involved the most significant change of set and actors, with the former Mr. and Mrs. Kent now filling in as the older Constance and William, the brother closest to her in age.
The play fixates on the siblings’ relationship, returning several times to their whim to run away to Bristol and be “cabin boys” together. I wondered if there was even meant to be a sexual undercurrent to their connection. William Savill-Kent went on to be a successful marine biologist specialising in corals and Australian fisheries. One theory is that they were accomplices in the murder but Constance took the fall so that her brother could live a full life.
Intriguingly, the team behind the production decided to espouse this hypothesis explicitly. In the chilling final scene, then, a crib is wheeled out to the centre of the stage and Constance floats on in a white nightdress to lower the side closest to the audience. Just before the lights go down, William, too, appears in a white nightdress and stands over the far side of the crib.
Although I referred to the book as “compulsive” in the one mention I find of it in my computer files, from 2011, I only gave it 3 stars – my most common rating in those years, an indication that a book was alright but I moved right along to the next in the stack and it didn’t stick with me. My book club had mixed feelings, too, generally feeling that there was too much extraneous detail, which perhaps kept a narrative that could have read as fluidly as a novel from being truly gripping. The play, though, was thrilling.
Book (c. 2009):
Buy The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
The #1954Club: Moominsummer Madness and Under Milk Wood
A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. The play’s the thing for this installment of the 1954 Club: Tove Jansson’s delightfully odd creatures end up in a floating theatre and rise to the occasion, and I’ve finally read Dylan Thomas’s famous play for voices. I’ll try to manage another couple of write-ups this weekend, too. (Both: University library; )
Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]
One never knows what magic or mischief will bubble up at Midsummer. For Moomintroll’s family, it all starts with the eruption of a volcano, which leads to a flood. Moominmamma does her best to uphold comforting routines in their inundated home, but eventually they leave it for a better-appointed house that floats by. One with thick velvet curtains, doors to nowhere, and cupboards full of dresses. I wearied ever so slightly of the dramatic irony that this is clearly a theatre but the characters don’t know what one is and have to be enlightened by Emma the stage rat. Meanwhile, Snufkin becomes accidental father to two dozen “woodies” and Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden are arrested for burning officious signs.
The teasing commentary on the pretensions of the theatre is sweet: Moominpappa decides to write a tragic play with a lion in; Emma tells him it simply must be in blank verse, so he obliges, but no one in the audience can understand a word until the actors speak normally. As usual with Jansson, there is separation and longing, disaster mitigated, disorientation navigated with pluck or resignation. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of her others, I appreciated the focus this time on bending the rules of how things must be done. My favourite quotes were about the overwhelming nature of choice and the value of a good cry:
(The Snork Maiden on the dresses in the costume closet) “They were far too many, don’t you see. I couldn’t ever have had them all or even choose the prettiest. They nearly made me afraid! If there’d been only two instead!”
(Misabel) “I’m taking the chance to have a cry over a lot of things now when there’s a good reason.”
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
I discovered A Child’s Christmas in Wales just last year and delighted in the language and the flights of fancy. Under Milk Wood is a short play completed just a month before Thomas’s death at the age of 39. It features a chorus of voices as the inhabitants of Llaregyb, a made-up coastal Welsh town, journey from one night through to the next. Gossipy neighbours, bickering spouses, flirtatious lovers; a preacher, a retired sea captain, fishermen; and much more. Some of the character names are jokes in and of themselves, like “Nogood Boyo” and “Willy Nilly,” and others sound so silly they might as well be rhyming slang.
The dead feel as vibrant as the living. The musicality of the prose sometimes made me feel I was reading poetry instead (indeed, a number of songs and rhymes are performed), and there is a bawdy charm to the whole thing. What might be stage directions in another play are read aloud here by “First Voice” and “Second Voice,” who trade off narration.
Maybe it was too much to hope that there could have been a plot somewhere in there as well? No matter. I could see how Thomas influenced the likes of Max Porter and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, anyway). I’m sorry I missed the chance to see this performed locally last month.
A favourite passage:
“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”
(I’ve also participated in the 1920 Club, 1956 Club, 1936 Club, and 1976 Club.)
Jane Eyre at the Newbury Corn Exchange
This is the second theatre adaptation of Jane Eyre that I’ve reviewed since I started my blog (and my second trip to Newbury’s Corn Exchange within two weeks). The previous one was just over four years ago, of the celebrated touring production that I saw at London’s National Theatre (review here). In comparing my notes from last night with my write-up from four years ago, I’ve discovered that the two productions were fairly similar in approach, with a bare-bones collection of wooden structures and furniture creating the set, and a handful of actors covering all the parts. Last night’s was even more stripped-back, with just a few blackened planks and a partial staircase representing the ruin of Thornfield Hall and serving as the backdrop for all the other settings. And here there were only five cast members, as compared to the NT’s 10: three actresses and two actors, with all bar one (Jane) revolving through the roles via simple costume changes like donning a bonnet or a waistcoat.
Probably my favorite aspect of this production was the live music. An antique piano stood at stage left and all the actors took turns playing it for background music or as part of a specific scene. Other instruments were also taken up occasionally: fiddle, cello, guitar, harmonium and recorder. Whereas the NT production made anachronistic use of pop songs, this production stuck to folk music that seemed appropriate to the time period. St. John Rivers’s pompous piety was exaggerated for comic effect, with Mrs. Fairfax another particularly amusing character. As in the NT show, one actor even briefly played Pilot the dog.
There were a few decisions that were less than successful for me, though. An eight-year jump between Helen’s death at Lowood School and Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall feels like a jolt. Jane wears the same dress throughout and nothing indicates her aging. She narrates her story as if she is revisiting her life in her mind. At a few points these explanations from the front of the stage slow down the action. Meanwhile, the strong Yorkshire accent the actress used was so much like Daisy’s in Downton Abbey that I struggled to take her seriously – it’s too much of a contrast with the Queen’s English most of the other characters speak. Is what we think of as a Yorkshire accent now actually how people spoke at that time?
But the chief transgression was omitting the pivotal scene in which Jane hears Rochester calling out to her and knows she has to return to Thornfield. Instead, Jane just makes a rational decision to “go home” after St. John leaves for India. Did the director think that modern audiences would find the mild supernatural content too unbelievable? Or was it just a practical matter in that the actor portraying Rochester happened to be playing the piano at that point? Surely a way could have been found around that.
In any case, it was a pleasant way to pass a few hours on a squally October night.
There is more information on the play, including photographs and a video trailer, on the Corn Exchange website.
What’s the last thing you saw at the theatre?
Second Person Narrative at New Era Theatre
It was a busy weekend for me: we saw Teesside folk duo Megson play at our local arts centre on Friday evening; on Saturday I baked a Dorset apple cake to take down to Hampshire for my father-in-law in advance of his 70th birthday, and in the evening, while my hubby got on with PhD stuff, I went to New Era Theatre, housed in a former chapel in our church carpark, for the first time. It’s a cozy space with only about 50 seats, and I sat on the front row.
The production was called Second Person Narrative, written by Jemma Kennedy and directed by Andy Kempe. Four actresses of different ages play the main character, known only as “You,” at various stages of her life. She’s an Everywoman, completely ordinary but also unique. Short scenes jump ahead three to six years at a time to highlight the big and small events that shape her life. At age 11, she tells the photographer on school picture day that she wants to be an explorer and save animals. At 23, she’s trying to spin her minimal experience into an enticing CV. At 36, she’s disillusioned by her first trip to the rainforest.
The set was a blue rectangular space with an Astroturf floor, hanging clouds covered in timepieces, and a gallery wall at the back where artifacts from You’s life accumulated scene by scene: her stuffed rabbit, a bouquet of flowers, a backpack, a cocktail shaker, and so on. The items are clever reminders of touchpoints from her story, but the wall is depressing: you look at it and wonder, Is that really all that a life adds up to? Occasional music emphasized the theme of time passing, with snippets of “As Time Goes By” and “Time after Time,” and the ending of each scene was signaled by the sound of a camera click.
Supporting characters seemed to serve as commentators on the protagonist’s choices. Her friends, mostly female, were dressed in white, while older males were in gray and played officious roles: her first work supervisor, a persnickety boyfriend who barely noticed when she left him during a trip to Italy, and a trio of men trying to turn her into a TV role model in her twenties or sell her a retirement flat in her seventies. By contrast, You wore red and black. Actresses played multiple roles: You’s mother and Granny from the early years were You in the third and fourth stages of life. This wasn’t just for convenience’s sake; it provides continuity and shows the character coming to resemble the generations of women before her.
The two most poignant scenes for me were when You is shopping with her mother and the salesgirl assumes the older woman will be in the market for things like a full-length caftan, and when sixtysomething You, having published a poetry collection, has to field inane questions from readers who don’t differentiate between a writer’s biography and art. Other scenes, though, such as You awkwardly flirting in a bar, didn’t add much to the whole.
I did expect the play to make more of the second person perspective. It’s something I find fascinating in books – though it’s often difficult to sustain for any longer than a short story or one chapter. The main character is never addressed by name; others refer to “she” or “her.” On a few occasions other actors come to the edge of the stage and carry on a one-sided dialogue, turning the audience into “You” and letting us fill in for ourselves what she’s saying in reply. What was confusing to me about that was that, as the years passed, the audience wasn’t only taking on the role of You, but her daughter and granddaughter too.
Only once is actual second person narration employed. This is during a nice meta moment when You, now 56, is hosting a book club meeting for friends; the text they’re discussing is Second Person Narration. After an argument with her daughter, she says aloud, “You look at your friends. You feel embarrassed. You pick your black top off the floor and wonder if you can actually still get into it.” One of the friends on stage asks, “Why is she talking like that?”
Overall, I found the production a bit odd and not entirely coherent, but it did succeed in making me think about the expectations placed on a woman’s life – by her family and friends, by society at large, and also by herself. The ending then, I think, specifically invites us to question how things would have gone differently had You been born male.
What do you make of second person narration? Do you think you would have enjoyed this play?
Meeting Mrs. Malaprop
I’d been aware for perhaps a few years that malapropisms are named after a character who’s prone to verbal gaffes. Last night I met Mrs. Malaprop herself at a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) at nearby Watermill Theatre. This was our second trip to the Watermill, after The Picture of Dorian Gray last September. It’s a small and intimate venue and the production was somewhat in the round, so we were in a row to the left-hand side of the stage. It felt like we were right inside the action, though occasionally one actor would block another such that we couldn’t see the looks passing between them.
It was a small cast of eight actors, four of whom did double duty as servants. We meet two young couples—Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute, with whom she’s fallen in love while he’s in disguise as penniless “Ensign Beverley” – they plan to elope; and Julia Melville and Faulkland, who saved her from drowning and has been her betrothed for years—along with two guardian figures, Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop, and two hapless suitors played for laughs, country bumpkin Bob Acres and over-the-top-Irish Sir Lucius O’Trigger. The characters’ paths cross in amusing ways while they are all in Bath.
One of the key words in the play is “caprice” – a term you don’t encounter so often these days. (The adjectival form, capricious, is common enough, but I can’t remember the last time I saw the noun.) Several of the characters could be described as capricious, but especially Faulkland, who torments Julia with his doubts about the constancy of her love, and Lydia, who rather loses interest in Captain Jack once she realizes that their guardians approve of their match and she won’t have to undertake a romantic elopement instead.
What with the disguises, misunderstandings, and general farcical atmosphere, The Rivals is reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy, though the language is easier to follow. Here in Beth Flintoff’s adaptation, much of the humor comes through in accents and exaggerated facial expressions, though Sir Anthony’s growled insults to his son and Bob Acres’ attempts to pass himself off as a gentleman are also highlights. The whole cast (see this full list) was terrific, including several actors familiar from British television and bit parts in films.
And, of course, there’s Mrs. Malaprop and her wondrous malapropisms. Sheridan would have taken her name from malapropos, a synonym for “inappropriate” first recorded in 1630, and an adaptation of the French term mal à propos (“poorly placed”). The first recorded use of “malaprop” for the wrong use of words was by Lord Byron in 1814. Some of the malapropisms in the play fell flat because both the spoken and intended words are too obscure nowadays. I think the director probably left out certain ones, and added at least one anachronistically modern one: “calamari” for calamity. But there were still some excellent ones. Here are a few of my favorites (see also this complete list):
“promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.”
“He is the very pine-apple of politeness!”
“she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”
[I even spotted a malapropism (can I use that term for written rather than spoken words?) on my cornflakes box this morning:
Do you spot it too?]
Great acting, costumes and hairstyles; laughs aplenty; and a rhyming prologue and epilogue that made reference to the modern day (“I’m not going to hex it with jokes about … anything unpleasant!” and “eat less baked beans and drink more champagne”): Altogether a splendid evening out at the theatre.
A Publisher Party and a One-Man Play
I was a veritable social butterfly this past week: I went out two evenings in a row! (Believe me, that’s rare.) On Tuesday I met up with bloggers Annabel, Eric and Kim at the Faber Spring Party held at Crypt on the Green in London, and on Wednesday my husband and I attended a performance at the University of Reading of Michael Mears’s one-man play on the plight of Britain’s conscientious objectors during World War I, This Evil Thing.
Faber Spring Party
I’ve never been to an event quite like this. Publisher Faber & Faber, which will be celebrating its 90th birthday in 2019, previewed its major releases through to September. Most of the attendees seemed to be booksellers and publishing insiders. Drinks were on a buffet table at the back; books were on a buffet table along the side. Glass of champagne in hand, it was time to plunder the free books on offer. I ended up taking one of everything, with the exception of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy: I couldn’t make it through Outline and am not keen enough on her writing to get an advanced copy of Kudos, but figured I might give her another try with the middle book, Transit.
For the evening’s presentation, each featured author had a few minutes to introduce their new book and/or give a short reading.
Rachel Cusk opened the evening with a reading from Kudos. If you’re familiar with her recent work, you won’t be surprised at this synopsis: a man on a plane recounts having his dog put to sleep. (Out on May 3rd.)
William Atkins’s book on deserts, The Immeasurable World, is based on three years of travel and is, he is not ashamed to say, in the old-fashioned travel writing tradition. (Out on June 7th.)
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a hybrid work of poem-essays. #2 is more philosophical, she said; #3 is about her father’s death and her son’s birth. She read sonnet 3.21. (Out now.)
Clémentine Beauvais’s In Paris with You is a YA romance in free verse, loosely based on Eugene Onegin. I don’t know the source text but started this on the train ride home and it’s enjoyable thus far. I’m in awe at how translator Sam Taylor has taken the French of her Songe à la douceur and turned it into English poetry. (Out on June 7th.)
Chris Power’s Mothers is a book of linked short stories, three of which are about a character named Eva. He read a portion of a story about her having an encounter with an unpleasant man in Innsbruck. (Out on March 1st.)
Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, set in 1923–50, is a saga that resembles “an Italian Mother Courage,” she says. She read a scene in which a character comes across a madwoman. (Out on April 5th.)
Zaffar Kunial read the poem “Spark Hill” from his forthcoming collection Us. It’s about a childhood fight in the area of Birmingham where he grew up. He had a folder open in front of him but, impressively, recited the long poem completely from memory. (Out on July 5th.)
American novelist Benjamin Markovits was a professional basketball player in Germany for six months. Like the tennis-playing protagonist of his upcoming book, A Weekend in New York, he got tired of being measured. After 15 years, his hero is eager to escape a life of being constantly ranked. This is the first in a quartet of novels that inevitably invites comparison with John Updike’s “Rabbit” books. (Out on June 7th.)
I confess I didn’t previously know the name Viv Albertine; she was the guitarist for the female punk band The Slits, and To Throw Away Unopened is her second memoir. Albertine realized that it was her mother who had made her an angry rebel; the title is the label on a bag she found in her mother’s room after her death. (Out on April 5th.)
Sophie Collins incorporates hybrid forms in her poetry – what she calls “lyric essays.” The theme of her book Who Is Mary Sue? is perceptions of women’s writing (with “Mary Sue” as a metonym for the stereotypical good girl). She read from “Engine.” (Out now.)
Katharine Kilalea’s debut novel Ok, Mr Field is about an injured concert pianist who becomes obsessed with a house he buys in South Africa. (Out on June 7th.)
Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates are the authors of two Homework for Grown-Ups books. Their new book, What Would Boudicca Do?, is about lessons we can draw from the women of history. For instance, the sampler booklet has pieces called “Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks” and “Frida Kahlo and Finding Your Style.” There’s a heck of a lot of books like this out this year, though, and I’m not so sure this one will stand out. (Out on September 6th.)
Richard Scott read two amazingly intimate poems from his upcoming collection, Soho. One, “cover-boys,” was about top-shelf gay porn; the other was about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum. If you appreciated Andrew McMillan’s Physical, you need to get hold of this the second it comes out. I went back and read “cover-boys” in the sampler booklet and it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it was aloud; Scott’s reading really brought it to life, in contrast to some other authors’ dull delivery. (Out on April 5th.)
Sue Prideaux’s forthcoming biography of Friedrich Nietzsche is entitled I Am Dynamite! She encountered her subject when she wrote her first biography, of Edvard Munch. Although Nietzsche has been embraced by far-right groups in America, he was in fact against racism, nationalism, and anti-semitism, so he has important messages for us today. I’ll be keen to get hold of this one. (Out on September 6th.)
Guitar in hand, Willy Vlautin closed the evening with a performance of the title track from the soundtrack album to his fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me – he was the singer in Portland, Oregon alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, which has recently stopped touring. He said the novel asks, “can you make the scars of broken people bearable?” (Out now.)
Now that I’ve got this terrific stack of books, wherever do I start?! I’m currently reading the Beauvais; from there I’ll focus on ones that have already been released, starting with Vlautin and the two poetry collections. The titles that aren’t out until June can probably wait – though it’s tempting to be one of the privileged few who get to read them nearly four months early. One Faber book per week should see me getting through all these by the final release date.
This Evil Thing
Michael Mears plays about 50 different characters in this one-man production. He’s an actor and pacifist who has written a number of solo pieces over 20 years. In this commemorative year of the end of the First World War, he knew we would hear a lot about battles, soldiers, and their families back home. But conscientious objectors weren’t likely to be remembered: theirs is a “story that’s rarely told,” he realized. This Evil Thing sets out to correct that omission. The title phrase refers not to war in general but specifically to conscription.
The two main characters Mears keeps coming back to in the course of the play are Bert Brocklesby, a Yorkshire preacher, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Brocklesby refused to fight and, when he and other COs were shipped off to France anyway, resisted doing any work that supported the war effort, even peeling the potatoes that would be fed to soldiers. He and his fellow COs were beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and threatened with execution. Meanwhile, Russell and others in the No-Conscription Fellowship fought for their rights back in London. There’s a wonderful scene in the play where Russell, clad in nothing but a towel after a skinny dip, pleads with Prime Minister Asquith.
As in solo shows I’ve seen before (e.g. A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart), Mears had to find subtle ways to distinguish between characters: he used a myriad different voices, including regional accents; he quickly donned a jacket, hat, or pair of glasses. Russell was identified by his ever-present pipe. The most challenging scene, Mears said in the Q&A at the end, was one with four characters in a French street café.
Mears reveals during the play that his grandfather fought in WWI and his father in WWII, but he has never had to put his own pacifist views to the test. What about Hitler? people always ask. Mears is honest and humble enough to admit that he doesn’t know what he would have done had he been called on to fight Hitler, or had he faced persecution as a CO in WWI. Ultimately, what Mears hopes audiences take from his play, which won acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is that “this is not an irrelevant piece of history.” Standing up for what you believe in, especially if it goes against the spirit of the times, is always valuable.
An All-Female Picture of Dorian Gray
A female Doctor Who, a proposed all-woman The Lord of the Flies – you can sense a cultural movement toward giving traditionally male roles to women. On Friday my husband and I saw an all-female production of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), at the lovely nearby Watermill Theatre. Adapted by Phoebe Eclair-Powell and directed by Owen Horsley, this is a brisk 67-minute performance by three young actresses.
With no intermission and no drastic scene changes, there was never the need for any of the players to leave the stage. Two of the actresses, Eva Feiler and Emily Stott, shared narration duties and rotated through all the supporting roles: mostly Dorian’s friends Lord Henry Wotton (Emily) and Basil Hallward (Eva), but also Sibyl Vane, the actress he falls for, her mother and brother, and so on – signifying their character changes through a simple prop like a flat cap, cane or ruffled cape. On the other hand, Emma McDonald, the Black British woman who played Dorian, had only that one part.
The costumes were all a variation on black and white, with Dorian in a form-fitting black dress with feathery epaulettes and the other two in more androgynous shirt and trouser combinations. A large white door frame was the only major item on stage: it served as the titular portrait’s frame and as the stage-within-the-stage for Sibyl’s performances, as well as the site for all comings and goings. Beyond that, the only stage furniture was a couple of chairs and a table with a wine bottle and some glasses on it.
I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but it’s one of those story lines you’re probably familiar with whether or not you’ve encountered the original and/or an adaptation. Dorian, led to believe that youth and beauty are the only things that matter in life, makes a devilish pact by which he transmits his soul to the portrait Basil painted of him: the painting will age and reflect the true state of Dorian’s character, while his body remains perfect. So as he goes his merry way through life, breaking the hearts of men and women alike and pursuing pleasure everywhere from London’s opium dens to China and Mexico, his face never changes.
I thought it was particularly meaningful to examine cultural ideals of age and attractiveness with female players. However, there was an odd disconnect for me here: the original names were retained, along with male pronouns throughout. Why wasn’t it “Dora Gray”, her hard-partying friend “Henrietta”, and so on? The contrast was especially striking in moments where the characters pause to refresh their lipstick.
Well, the director answered that query – or, rather, sidestepped it – during the question and answer session that followed this short production. Horsley mentioned that Eclair-Powell only wanted to work with the play if she could have an all-female cast, and that she didn’t want to try to feminize the story in any way. She just wanted to put it out there, the same way Shakespeare might have – as with his cases of men playing woman playing men – and let audiences decide what they thought.
After a week at the Watermill, the production is moving on to a several-week tour of local schools, where it will be aimed at teenage audiences. I reckon it will be more effective in that context: the themes of vanity and selfishness should ring true for young people, and they will probably appreciate the comic flashes (e.g. when the narrators joke about who’s going to play which part, with what accent) more than I did, as well as the slightly melodramatic moments when Dorian is standing in front of the painting and telling us what ‘he’ sees.
In any case, I think I’ll make Dorian Gray one of my spooky pre-Halloween reads. I’ve downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
Do you think you would have enjoyed this production, or found it off-putting?
Two Trips to the Theatre
Jane Eyre at the National Theatre
On October 3rd I was lucky enough to see a new production of Jane Eyre at London’s National Theatre. Thanks to theatre vouchers I had lying around, I paid all of £8 for my back-row seat, from which I had an excellent view, especially thanks to the pair of mini binoculars. Ten actors and musicians share all the roles. Sometimes a change of dress or hat is all that makes the distinction. For instance, the same actress (Laura Elphinstone) plays Helen Burns, Grace Poole, Adèle Varens, and St. John Rivers. One actor even plays Pilot the dog. His persistent “whoo-whoo” bark and habit of flopping at people’s feet make for charming comedy.
But the play belongs, of course, to Jane, and Madeleine Worrall is perfectly cast: unassuming yet passionate, a little firebrand. I can’t say for certain, but my impression is that she never leaves the stage during the entire production. She plays Jane at all ages: she voices a creepy baby cry when the bundle of cloth representing her infant self appears; other actors help her in and out of various dresses over a simple white shift as she grows up. The addition of a corset and petticoat indicates that she is now an adult, and a wedding dress and veil are the symbols of true love dangled before her eyes and then snatched away.
Set, props and music are all used to great effect. The action takes place on a complex of boardwalks, staircases and ladders, and most of the props are also wood and metal: stools, crates and window frames moved around to model different settings. The multiple levels allow for comings and goings but also for subtle displays of power relations. Objects hanging from the ceiling help to create location – family portraits and ominous red lighting signify Gateshead (the Reed house), simple sacking garments characterize Lowood School, and window frames and bare bulbs that flicker to Bertha’s laughs quite effectively evoke Thornfield Hall.
There is live musical backing at many points, with a piano, guitar, double bass and drums tucked off center under one of the boardwalks. The music ranges from instrumentals that wouldn’t be out of place in Downton Abbey or The Lord of the Rings to pop songs. An opera singer in a red satin dress wanders around singing snatches of folk spirituals and contemporary numbers. I certainly didn’t expect to hear Cee Lo Green’s “Crazy” during an adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel, but somehow it fits brilliantly.
The play is admirably true to the book. The two climactic fire scenes work very well, better than one might expect, and the romantic moments between Jane and Rochester are touchingly believable. I especially liked how journeys are suggested: a huddle of actors stand in the center of the stage and run in place to a percussion backing and a chant of destinations. One coach journey is even interrupted by a ‘piddle break’! Deaths are marked by opening a trap door near the edge of the stage and a character slowly descending some stairs out of sight.
The play started life in Bristol as a two-part adaptation stretching to four hours; for its move to London it has been condensed to just over three hours, but this still feels long, especially towards the end of the first act or in the aftermath of the revelation about Bertha. The St. John material, especially, drags – though that is true of the book as well. My main criticism of the production would be the way it sometimes tries to externalize Jane’s thoughts by having her ‘talk to herself’ via three or four other actors arguing. An angsty monologue à la Hamlet would have done the job just fine. Revealing Jane’s feelings for Rochester through a performance of the song “Mad About the Boy” likewise struck me as unsubtle.That said, Bertha is handled superbly (there’s a surprise as to how this is done; I won’t give it away, though you might work it out if you look at the links below) and the excellent ending repeats the beginning in a very satisfying way.
A big anniversary is coming up: 2016 is the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I’ve noticed a cluster of books being published or reissued in advance of her 200th birthday, such as Claire Harman’s biography, which I’ll review for For Books’ Sake, and a novel translated from the Dutch about Emily and Charlotte’s time in Belgium, Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing, which I’ll read for The Bookbag. There could be no better time for going back to her timeless stories, whether through the books themselves or another artistic expression.
To compare the thoughts of some professional theatregoers and see a few photos, check out the reviews on the Guardian and Telegraph websites.
When We Are Married by the Twyford & Ruscombe Players
J.B Priestley (1894–1984) is not a very familiar name for me, but my husband assures me he’s well known and loved here in England, if only for the play An Inspector Calls, which he studied at GCSE (it’s still a set text) and saw on stage. When We Are Married, one of the prolific Yorkshire author’s many plays, was first performed in 1938, though it’s set in 1908. I went to see it in our local village hall this past Saturday night.
The premise is simple: three couples (the Helliwells, Parkers and Soppitts) are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, having all been married in the same chapel on the same morning. They even have a photo commemorating the occasion, and today they hope to recreate that shot. Over the years they have done well for themselves: one man is an alderman and another a counsellor; all three are heavily involved in their local chapel.
All is not well in this small Yorkshire village, however. They are disappointed with their newly hired organist, a la-di-da southerner named Gerald Forbes who has been seen stepping out with young ladies at night. The whole play takes place in the drawing room of Alderman Helliwell’s home, and in an early scene the three gentlemen summon Gerald with the intention of dismissing him. However, he has his own surprise: a letter from the parish’s former parson, confessing that he wasn’t properly licensed to perform wedding ceremonies at the time. Consequently, these three pillars of the community are not legally married after all.
The news soon gets out thanks to a sullen cook who was listening behind the door and broadcasts the story at the local pub. In Act II the couples – including Gerald and his secret sweetheart, the Helliwells’ niece – take it in turns to come on stage for private chats. They spend time imagining what could be different in their lives if they really were single. Henpecked Herbert Soppitt gets his own back after years of cowering, while Mrs. Parker finally tells the Counsellor how dull and stingy she’s always found him to be.
The two best characters are Ruby Birtle, the Helliwells’ garrulous maid, and Henry Ormonroyd, a drunken photographer sent by the Yorkshire Argus. He functions like the Fool in this Shakespearean comedy of reversals, and happens to have some of the most profound lines. Will these unlucky couples get their anniversary photograph after all?
This was an enjoyable local production. The simple set was easy to maintain, and the acting – especially the Yorkshire accents – unimpeachable. The audience was in three sections in a rough semicircle around the action; my chair was just five feet behind a chaise longue on set. My only criticism would be that one of the three wives looked 20 years younger than the rest. I’ll certainly venture out for another show by the Twyford & Ruscombe Players.