If Skin Deep was meant to be frightening, it has, to put it tersely, failed. Despite a previous run at the London Horror Festival (surely a contradiction in terms: what’s so ‘festive’ about horror?) it seemed bizarre rather than scary, and only in the closing moment or two does a genuine sense of the macabre come about, before the play rather abruptly ends. If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought the end was only the interval. Maybe it was deliberate, leaving a door open for a sequel play. And as I never tire of saying, it is better to leave the audience wanting more than outstaying one’s welcome.
Erzsebet Bathory (Ashley Winter) may be a name familiar to those who have an interest in European history. She is named in the Guinness World Records, as ‘Elizabeth Bathori’, as the “most prolific murderer of the western world”. The problem with the production is that this piece of trivia isn’t fully explored. While there are the occasional choreographed sets of movements between scenes that appear to suggest something sinister is either going on or is about to happen, it is open to interpretation. I suppose the production is attempting to ask questions about whether Erzsebet’s reputation is fully deserved, but without being preachy.
Given the contemporary accompanying music and the almost equally contemporary costumes, the show is slightly odd in its retention of domestic servants and the bygone practice of washing clothes by hand. I welcome the departure from this being yet another period play with men in tights and women in hooped skirts, but I still couldn’t fully shake off a lingering thought: which century is this play set in?
Let’s just say that there are narcissistic and manipulative people in the world in the twenty-first century, just as there were in the sixteenth. Ursula Nadasady (Rachel August) came across as more evil and controlling than Erzsebet. That said, the latter uses her position within society, her power lying with what she can refuse to do rather than what she is capable of. Whether passivity is mightier than the sword is up for debate.
If the treatment of women by the likes of Ferenc Nadasdy (Oscar Scott-White) comes across as misogynistic (irrespective of when the story is set), the treatment of certain women by other female characters is infinitely more brutal, at least as portrayed here. Lucie (a compelling Clementine Mills) is given a particularly rough ride. Erzsebet is almost the ‘Elphaba’ of this story, exposing, rather like the musical Wicked, the circumstances into how such a notorious and almost universally disliked character ended up being the way she was. This production also has a large cast, particularly for a small scale show of this nature: I counted eleven in all.
It’s often said that bullies were oftentimes once bullied themselves, and this certainly seems to be case for Erzsebet. One or two scenes seemed superfluous to the overall storyline. Nonetheless, they provided some welcome comic relief from the oppressive and increasingly tense atmosphere the play eventually creates. ‘Eventually’ being the operative word, not because it is painfully sluggish (it isn’t) but because the steady pace gradually presents one person’s word against another in a dog-eat-dog world.
The performers, unless I have made a very callous error in judgement, retain their natural accents, and it works well here. This is a thought-provoking show that makes a good effort at bringing a fresh perspective to an old story.
Review by Chris Omaweng
SKIN DEEP: Camden Fringe Festival
Sexuality. Faith. Power. New Play Explores What Drove One Of History’s Most Prolific & Blood Thirsty Female Serial Killers To Murder
AUTHOR Lee Anderson
DIRECTOR Chris Montague & Ailin Conant
The Lion and Unicorn
42-44 Gaisford St, Kentish Town NW5 2ED
31st July – 6th August TIME: 9:15pm
DURATION: Aprox 60 mins (no interval)