Written by April De Angelis in 1993, Playhouse Creatures is a thoroughly enjoyable feminist take on the female presence on and off the Restoration stage. Directed by Amanda Knott, Cygnet Theatre Company delivers a brilliant performance, enjoyable from beginning to end. The feminine condition is explored through four lively and witty actresses of the Restoration: Mary Betterton, Elizabeth Farley, Rebecca Marshall, and Nell Gwynn. There’s a fifth character, Doll Common, whose presence works as chorus of the play, by mediating and commenting on the young (and less young) actresses’ quarrels.
Toying with a multilayered metatheatre, this play projects on stage the politics of the Restoration playhouse through the Duke’s Company, managed by Thomas Betterton. ‘A pit of pestilence’, the playhouse is at once a blessing and a curse for these actresses. Although very different from one another, the women portrayed are all determined in being successful and in pursuing the perfect role. More than Elizabeth, condemned to wander around the filthy and dark streets of London alone and miserable, and more than Rebecca, victim of physical abuse on the streets, Mrs. Betterton is the central character. She is the real playhouse creature: ‘born’ and bred inside the theatre’s walls, her ambitions have turned her into a pathetic, but nonetheless disturbing, version of Lady Macbeth, whose lines she has rehearsed over and over again. The young actress playing Mrs Betterton delivers an exceptional performance, which perfectly conveys her discomfort in being aware she owes her theatrical career to the husband.
There’s a change in the dramatic tone of the play after the break, when the personal decline of all actresses begin. Only one of them is shown at the peak of her professional success; Nell ‘Nelly’ Gwynn, former oyster-seller, successfully manages to go past her previous life habits and to enter the King’s court and palace – her wish. Reportedly a bad actress, she is perfectly depicted so; her acting abilities are very poor, but she evidently soon learns how ‘one can go a long way in the theatre with their mouth open’.
The use of the very small space available is amazing: three rails of stage costumes are aligned on the background, when the scene is the playhouse. But these are also moved forward when big secrets are shared. Therefore, their lives are metaphorically continuously on stage; they live for the theatre, and they live in the theatre.
Accuracy in dates doesn’t matter in Playhouse Creatures (The Provoked Wife, the Great Fire and Aphra Behn are not contemporary to one another), because the central theme is the feminine condition. Objects of desire and social victims at the same time, Restoration actresses would certainly embody the need for promiscuity felt by her male counterparts after the long Puritan break. They were merely means in the hands on the playwrights too; female roles were victimized and framed into a patriarchal system far from being disrupted.
Unfortunately only three days in London, at the Rosemary Branch, this is a really lively production which effectively opens a window on what it meant to be the first actresses of the English stage. The play is never predictable, and moves swiftly and easily from comic to tragic tones. The brilliance of the play itself lies in a wider modern appeal its themes have, which are sadly still relevant to our own age.
Review by Gabriella Infante
by April de Angelis
directed by Amanda Knott
The year is 1669 – a bawdy and troublesome time. The theatres have just re-opened after seventeen years of suppression under the Puritans, encouraging a great upsurge in dramatic writing. Of vital importance to the development of drama was the entrance of the first English actresses upon the English stage.
April De Angelis has taken five famous figures – Nell Gwynn, Elizabeth Farley, Rebecca Marshall, Doll Common and Mary Betterton – and given us a fascinating look at the precarious lot of actresses at that time. A moving and often comic account of the true lives of Restoration actresses, with some earthy language!
The play contains scenes from plays performed in London in the late 1600s, and the players delight in the challenge to their versatility and talent. So did a truly appreciative audience.
Sunday 14th June 2015