Saturday, April 2, 2016

Playhouse Creatures - Pigeonhole Theatre

Review by John Lombard

As we know from Shakespeare, in England the theatre was once an all-male trade, with boys in frocks playing the female roles. Ophelia could be an apprenticeship on the way to Othello. The male monopoly only ended in the 1660s when Restoration monarch Charles II witnessed women on the French stage and was inspired to lift the English prohibition on female actors. At last, female parts could actually be played by those who lived female lives. If only those parts could also be written by women as well.

Playhouse Creatures could be an inspiring feminist tale, the story of those tough and determined women who broke into an all-male field and proved that they were the equals of any man. But with the gains of the feminist movement still centuries away, there is inevitably no happy ending here. The script draws parallels between the experience of the these early actresses and the bears who were tortured in that other great English recreation, bear-baiting: because they bleed, other people get fed. Tellingly, the best outcome is for the young actress who dives in, squeezes her sex appeal for all she can, and then gets out early.

Director Jordan Best sets the right tone of melancholy early with haunting music but maintains her trademark whip crack pace, bustling us through the story of five actresses, four of them based on actual historical figures and the fifth (Liz Bradley's Doll Common) a vulgar and very funny "Everywoman". There is aging diva Mary Betterton (Karen Vickery); proto-feminist Rebecca Marshall (Emma Wood); vain bombshell Elizabeth Farley (Jenna Roberts); and finally common, hungry, and talented Nell Gwyn (Amy Dunham), who with only a line in oyster sale patter is determined to learn some poetry and force her way onto the stage.

For Nell Gwyn, the theatre is a chance to move up in class: to dress nicely and have the adulation of a crowd, and even a shot at mixing with royalty. For Elizabeth Farley, a lower middle class woman adrift in the world after the death of her father, it is a desperate scramble to hold onto a last thread of respectability. The contrast between Gwyn and Farley drives the play, with Farley determined to secure her place in the world by obstructing all potential challengers. Jenna Roberts plays Farley as a cruel ingĂ©nue without the emotional maturity to deal with life's challenges, and strides over some moments of creaky outright villainy to create the maximum sympathy for her character. Amy Dunham meanwhile nails her character right from the get-go, giving Nell a bold and expressive physicality that shows her potential on the stage, then very gingerly sanding off Nell's rougher edges as she learns to mix with a wealthier class of people.

But the older actresses are the most interesting because they are the ones with the most passionate interest in their craft. Vickery's Mrs. Betterton is at the twilight of her career, with a last gasp at playing Cleopatra giving way to increasingly demeaning and worthless parts. But she endures because this is the only way she can live: if they only wanted her to play a tree, she would be out there rustling her branches to maximum theatrical effect. She is an enthusiastic giver of slightly eccentric acting lessons, and develops an interesting mentor relationship with Nell, the hot young stuff destined to take away everything she cares about. Mrs. Betterton, more than any other character, adores the nuts and bolts of acting, but lives in a world that cares more about the quality of a nice pair of legs than technical virtuosity.

Emma Wood's Rebecca Marshall, meanwhile, is the closest thing the play has to a modern woman: she visits salons, agitates for a share in the profits of the theatre, and can match any heckler's leer with her own library of impressively florid insults. Marshall is reaching for a richer, more stimulating and rewarding life than women are accustomed to, but when she is welcomed into the world she dreams of it is only as a curio, just another dancing bear. Marshall is tough and sometimes unkind, but as Wood plays her the character who has the deepest insight into how society uses and abuses her sex.

At times, the briskness of the action makes us forget the restrictive era the play is set in. Nell sees the theatre as her big chance in life, and we expect this to be a story about success against the odds, but as the play develops the brutal, sleazy realties of being a woman in Restoration theatre we realise that the fight has already been lost, at least in the lifetime of these women.  The goal is not a feminist victory, but simple survival. Then as now, men still get the best parts, with most female roles only props in someone else's story, and if pregnancy no longer automatically means a shift into prostitution, it can still end a career.

The play, then, is an argument for the company that has put it on: Pigeonhole Theatre declares that its mission is to provide "great roles for women on and off the stage".

Mrs. Betterton would approve.