‘O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.‘
Henry V Act I Scene i
Long has it been custom for playwrights to turn inwards upon their craft to comment upon the trials and tribulations of acting – one of the oldest of professions. I might have easily leapt aboard the bandwagon and trotted out the ‘All the world’s a stage’ spiel but with regard to Playhouse Creatures I think the opening chorus from Shakespeare’s Henry V might serve my purpose to better effect. After the performance of April de Angelis’s play I re-entered the Black Box Theatre (now empty) to wait for a few words with the director, Lauren Moakes. It was only as I cautiously walked onto the stage, the first time that I had ever done so, that I began to feel the latent power of this enclosed space; this small platform walled around by beady lights and inclining audiences – not too much of a stretch to imagine ‘this scepter’d isle’. But if this blessed plot where actors strut their stuff be comparable to that of a kingdom, its power lies in the uneasy dichotomy of actors and audience. In this respect the stage feels more like a house of cards – a structure founded on two bits of paper leaning in opposition to one another, and if the stage’s power lies in two cards, surely a play is traversing a tight rope on a unicycle. The resounding sentiments is one of vulnerability – a sense that there is no off stage to run to. Enter the playhouse creatures.
It’s 1663 in Stuart England and a new creation has been conceived: the actress. Angelis’s play of 1993 follows four of these new-found thespians: Nell Gwyn, Mrs Farley, Mrs Marshall, and the ageing Mrs Betterton (Symone Thompson, Leigh Douglas, Amy Warren, and Lucy Theobald respectively). By watching their experiences on and off stage one appreciates the sense of disparity; from behind the posturing, the heroic speeches and the finery we see that their vocation more closely resembles that of Nell’s petticoat: an unappreciated, slightly soiled garment which has wandered into the spotlight to play to the measure of lascivious eyes. That’s not to say that their vocation is all doom and gloom. Indeed, our troupe of actresses enjoy moments of great inspiration and adrenaline as the hush falls around the house – elements which have enticed people to take to the stage for centuries. However, the barb amidst this attractive lure is the masculine predominance over the fate of these women. The ageing, experienced Mrs Betterson is sacrificed by her own husband (the theatre manager) for younger, perkier flesh; Mrs Farley falls pregnant and undergoes an excruciating abortion in order to cling on to her actress status; Mrs Marshall is brought low by her former ‘protector’ the earl of Oxford – physically assaulted for her impudence. All except Nelly, the resolute upstart, escapes the playhouse to live in a home of her own. This triumph is somewhat lost in the knowledge that her freedom is endorsed, nay governed, by a male patron in a Pygmalionesque lavishing of silver and gold, and other material goods. Is it a coincidence that in the process of listing the various fates of our actresses, I’m reminded of King Richard II’s mournful words?
‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d,
some poison’d by their wives, some sleeping killed;
The sad succession of events which sees many of the actresses dethroned bears much resemblance to Richard’s lamentations, for their success depends wholeheartedly on the delectation of their audience – much in the same way that kings are answerable to their subjects. Angelis may be a feminist writer but she’s far too clever to restrict her play to mere ideology. Rather, the strength of Playhouse and indeed the strength of tonight’s production lies in the power of its potent imagery.
Imagery and allusion galore. The production is a fertile ground and among others I spy Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare in abundance, and Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I realise that this review is fast becoming a study but bear with me a moment more for I feel compelled to touch upon what was, for me, the instrumental image of the play: those flimsy acting shoes. The symbolic appurtenance, or ‘accoutrement’ as Mrs Farley would say, of the actresses’ power. Much of our language today is based upon referring to the ‘part’ to resemble the ‘whole’ and in the scheme of the play this metonymical representation gives the actresses a religious air – the bright little pair of shoes adding to their virginal quality. It seems classical at the same time as if to put on such shoes would be to take up Orpheus’ lyre. Either way, such a carefully focussed attention on the shoes, with the help of lighting, adorns them with a mysterious power – much like the crown which marks a king. I’m reminded by Rene Margitte’s The Red Model – a depiction of a pair of boots which gradually transform to resemble that of a human foot which, to me, suggests the idea that the two entities are separate and yet the same. Watching the actresses walk to the altar-like shelf to replace their shoes, one by one in a scene of abdication and usurpation, will remain with me for a long time.
I’m well aware that my review took a rather analytical turn but I feel it my duty to reflect upon the aspects of the play which made me think; those images which continue to resound within my head. Playhouse Creatures has been full of them. I should also say that tonight’s performance has been rife with laughter – a lighthearted respite from the hard questions which the play poses. The production has poked and pondered in all the right places. But enough of me: Lauren Moakes, the director, has now arrived and after a fair bit of umming and arring she manages to condense the production into one word: “disillusionment”. It’s an interesting word to go for and I must admit I quite like it. Stood up here where many have stood before, with the bright lights of many shining faces, one imagines just how difficult that “disillusionment” might be to achieve.
Photo credit: EJS Photography ejsillett.com