If only there was a little more performance space: the performers in The Unnatural Tragedy are in and out and back again that I could just imagine a production on a bigger stage would use a revolve to flit between the various scenes and scenarios. A seventeenth-century play published just after the Restoration, an edition of the script freely available (at the time of writing) from the University of Liverpool, has seventeen scenes in the fifth act. The final scene is omitted from this production, which explains why it ended rather abruptly. If I had the inclination, I might well go through the play and highlight what other scenes may have been skipped. Instead, I rely on the reviewer’s prerogative not to give too much away.
Despite the staging’s constraints, the production does well to bring the script to life. The stage directions are far from detailed, restricted largely to who enters and exits when, with occasional details about certain actions that accompany certain lines. The production is faithful to the script – each and every scene ends with the stage cleared, with other characters entering the stage to begin the following scene. Given the admittedly impressive timing between scenes, such that the show flowed well from start to finish, both stage and backstage areas were, at times, rather busy.
I’m not sure whether the portrayal of ‘sociable virgins’ (Madeleine Hutchins, Lily Donovan, Phebe Alys, and Eleanor Nawal) as schoolgirls dressed in school uniform is a perfect fit. Under the apparent tutorship of the Matron (Norma Dixit), they flit from a ball game to a quick-fire discussion of a range of topics, and elsewhere, school books are out but their relatively vacuous conversations are often encouraged by the Matron, aside from one time where she takes umbrage with one of the girls and decides to leave the room. I thought this rather odd: wouldn’t the teacher ordinarily send the offending pupil out of the room?
There are three (as far as I can deduce) plots going on, all at once, requiring the audience’s attention. If I may borrow a football analogy, the storylines progress by ‘squad rotation’. You already know about one of them: the sociable virgins able to display both wit and creativity, thus showing women as fully capable of being as knowledgeable and amusing as men. The second is between Frere (Jack Ayres) and Soeur (Alice Welby), siblings. Frere’s intentions and subsequent actions resulted in audible gasps from the audience.
The third plotline involved Malateste (Alan Booty), whose first wife, the long-suffering Bonit (Alison Mead) behaves in a very different manner to his second. One of the ‘sociable virgins’ becomes Madam Malateste (Madeleine Hutchins), whose brashness and confidence seems to bamboozle Malateste, to some comic effect. Booty plays Malateste so well it is difficult not to feel at least a little sympathy with someone who, by his own admission, is getting his comeuppance.
More could have been done with the lighting – ‘day’ looked exactly the same as ‘night’. The twenty-first-century costumes combined with seventeenth-century dialogue took a little while to get used to, and some subtle but nonetheless convincing use of mobile telephony even worked its way into proceedings. A lively and surprisingly intense production.
Review by Chris Comaweng
A brand new piece of writing, that’s over 350 years old!
Cavendish’s The Unnatural Tragedy has never had any kind of performance, not even in the author’s lifetime – until now! This is partly due to the subject matter; the female characters suffer incest, rape, and emotional abuse. Preceding Marx by 200 years, she questions whether Biblical doctrine is (literally) man-made. If that is the case then only Nature’s laws exist – but what is “Unnatural”?
Director: Graham Watts
Designer: Alys Whitehead
The Unnatural Tragedy By Margaret Cavendish
3rd to 21st July 2018