Playhouse Creatures is an object example of the growing importance of theatre and literature in York. In Playhouse Creatures April de Angelis melds the lives of five historical women bringing them together as members of the Duke’s Company in 1670, managed by Mr. Thomas Betterton. The action switches between the Green Room and the stage and de Angelis structures the play around the triumphs of Mary Sanderson Betterton as the first woman to play many of Shakespeare’s Heroines: Juliet, Lady Macbeth and others. In spite of her prominence as an actress, she was known as a virtuous woman, and had a long and successful career. Lindsay Smith portrays this woman, focussed on her husband and on the business of the stage, perfectly, easily switching between mother hen, prima actress and performer as the action switches seamlessly between the front and back of stage.
Throughout the performance we see the gradual fading of her star as the younger bolder ladies grow in power. De Angelis uses the Shakespeare excerpts to great effect to document the psychological effect of ageing and seeing others take her place.
Roxanna Klimaszewska glows as she plays the part Mrs. Rebecca Marshall, the stage constant around whom the rise and fall of the other ladies is measured. She begins the play as an established player and remains so throughout. De Angelis gives Mrs. Marshall the role of house witch/midwife and she is the voice of practical sensibility in the company, never forgetting that she is an actress first. Roxanna and Lindsay maintain the pace throughout the play interacting as experienced performers holding the Duke’s Company together. On a historical note, Rebecca Marshal had ‘retired’ by 1670 and all her roles were being performed by her sister Anna who later joined the Duke’s Company. Rebecca is believed to have only ever played one season with Betterton’s troupe, and that was 20 years later.
Gemma Sharp properly captures the tragedy of the stage as Mrs. Elizabeth Farley, firstly as she tricks the innocent Nell Gwynn out of an opportunity to audition for the company, gaining and losing the favour of the King and through the ever present dangers of becoming pregnant and later returning to the streets. Mrs. Farley indeed was the King’s mistress for a time and was better known as Mrs. Weaver, as she was the (common law) wife to James Weaver. De Angelis gives the rivalry with Nell Gwynn to Mrs. Farley though properly it belongs to Mrs. Marshall.
Anna James plays the crucial role of Nell Gwynn, the one role that will be familiar to everyone watching: the woman who rose from orange seller to actress to mistress of Charles II and who sired two children founding an aristocratic bloodline. Anna James presents the innocent neophyte who grows and develops under Mrs. Betterton’s mothering to become a leading actress and the King’s mistress. She begins her career being tricked out of an audition by Elizabeth Farley and tricks herself into the company by consummate lying. As Nell’s star waxes, Elizabeth’s wanes, and we see their careers in contrast to the steadiness of Mrs. Marshall’s.
Finally we come to Doll Common played exquisitely by Barbara Miller. In real life, Doll was Mrs. Katherine Corey and she was the first actress licensed to play on the English stage. She built a reputation playing older women, and died in 1668. Doll is the ever present reality, and in this play is the company seamstress. She plays the role of the old retainer, the respected voice of reason, the repository of history, and the reminder to the company members of their mortality. Barbara Miller manages this roll perfectly, never upstaging the others yet never vanishing entirely: this is always a difficult balance and as is typical of these ensemble plays, she is the survivor.
In spite of the excellent talents of the cast, the play itself was a bit of a disappointment. The restoration was a time of great wit. The aristocracy, with a growing emphasis on ‘learning’ built their reputations on their wits. The common women , as they do today, had a very healthy sense of humour, and theatre folk, backed by the performer’s nervous energy would have indulged in razor sharp repartee, none of which is evident in the script. We saw some punning on cunning, which I am not sure the author intended. We have a play set in the ladies retiring room of a theatre with five women who made a living flaunting their sexuality on the stage yet that up front edge before and after a performance, is not found in the script.
Instead we have an excellent and slightly pedantic feminist lecture on the exploitation of women. You can see the author ticking off the bullet points as the action moves through the play: subjection, exploitation, control, impotence, dependence on men, consequences of men, recourse to the streets and so forth. A sharper script giving the women wittier lines would have allowed them to express their equivocal dependence on each other, along with their professional rivalry, loves and jealousies. Taking the five women and bringing them together works very well, but these were five very strong women and April de Angelis would have served the cause better if she had allowed these women greater freedom to be themselves.
Playhouse Creatures by April de Angelis performed by Hedgepig Theatre is at the Upstage Centre Theatre, Monkgate until July14 2012.