Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Theatre Review: Vanity Fair, Pearl Theater Company, New York City

How do you take an eight hundred page 1840s novel and make it digestible in two and a half hours for the modern stage? According to playwright Kate Hamill and director Eric Tucker, through multi-roling, pointed exposition and random inclusions of dances like the Macarena and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The result is, ironically, the theatrical equivalent of a novel that needs a good edit, skipping from entertaining to irritating to downright perplexing in the course of a scene.

What the production gets right

Scene Selection:
Hamill shows an adept adaptor’s eye in her choice of scenes from Thackeray’s original. Those who had not read the novel were never in danger of losing the train of a complex plot and the emotional pacing allowed for more character development than you might have expected, given the role hopping of most of the cast. The moment Emmy (Joey Parsons) and Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe) share, discussing how much they miss their children, is a great example of the lightness of the script’s touch here, boiling down Thackeray’s lengthy prose into tight and relatable dialogue.

Becky Sharp:
Hamill herself takes on the role of the infamous Becky Sharp and outshines the rest of the cast, contorting her expressions to resemble those of Thackeray's illustrations and bringing out the character’s humanity as well as her manipulative nature.

The cast-operated curtains and wheeling furniture makes for rapid scene transitions and is ideal for a play that covers multiple locations and years. The staging evokes the swirl and momentum of the fair – the literal fair Becky and co. attend early in the novel and the fair of society, everyone wanting something, everyone selling something, all clamouring to be heard.

What was less successful

The play’s actors took on many roles, playing not only cross-gender, but once cross-species with Parsons taking a brief turn as the Pitts’ cat. This worked for the most part but took a turn for the pantomimic in the male actors’ depiction of women. In this modern retelling with a clear feminist agenda, men playing women for cheap laughs felt out of place and awkward. Debargo Sanyal as Briggs, Brad Heberlee as Miss Jemima and Ryan Quinn as Miss Pinkerton were the main culprits. I couldn’t help but wish the cast had just played their roles with total commitment and realism.

The crossdressing fit a wider pattern of the cast being too reliant on, and almost desperate for, audience validation and laughter. At several junctures, as mentioned above, they broke out their twentieth and twenty first century dance moves, which added little to the production beyond a confused tittering from the crowd. It looked more fun for them than it was for us and bewildered the audience, rather than making Vanity Fair more accessible. Somebody should have told them to cut it out in rehearsal.

The ‘Moral’:
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has no hero and no moral, facts which this product was keen to remind us of. But Hamill does introduce a moral of her own – that we should not be too quick to judge those who have gone before us, as one day others will look back and judge us. The idea is good, the delivery heavy handed and the point belaboured. It made me wish, as with many parts of the show, that the production team and cast would only trust us — trust the audience to ‘get’ it, to find humour without slapstick, to remain engaged without being spoonfed.

Do you know of any other NYC plays you think the Secret Victorianist should review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: Fingersmith, Sarah Waters (2002)

Unwanted wives incarcerated in asylums, unwanted babies farmed out to criminals, a drawing master seducing his young lady student and a scholarly uncle sequestering his heiress ward from the rest of the world. If you’re well versed in the building blocks of Victorian sensation novels, there’s much about Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith that may seem familiar.

Yet this 2002 thriller manages to defy expectations in new and exciting ways – not just by introducing sensational plotlines and dialogue that would have been inadmissible to Collins, Braddon and Reade (a central female/female romance, a bibliographical study of pornography, plenty of ‘fucks’, ‘cunts’, and, my personal favourite, ‘fucksters’), but by forcing us to reassess who we can trust and the false security our previous literary knowledge might have given us.

The novel starts in the unforgiving world of Borough, where men and women eat by stealing purses and skinning dogs. A debonair trickster known as ‘Gentleman’ has a plan - petty thief Susan Trinder, daughter of a murderess, must leave London for Briar, a country house near Maidenhead, to become maid to Maud Lilly and help him steal her away along with her fortune.

Sarah Waters (1966-)
This is the point at which we expect Sue to enter the Victorian world we know from novels – a world of hierarchy, etiquette and morality – but soon it becomes clear that she is in much more danger here, and it is dirty, amoral Borough that is the novel’s pattern for love and domesticity.

What comes next is a few hundred pages of twists and turns, double crossing and, at times, brutality. Could it have done with a more extensive edit? Yes, but Waters keep you guessing to the very end and reading fast to the finish line. The title Fingersmith hints at thievery, midwifery and female masturbation, yet it also conjures up the idea of a wordsmith, playing with readers’ emotions and stirring up their imaginations – appropriate given the novel’s final moments, and the original conception of sensation fiction.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

A Dickensian Master Class in Powerful Openings: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The opening to Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities is so famous today that the words seem timeless, even as its themes – a polarisation of political opinion and a desire to designate everything as either good or evil – feel peculiarly timely.

Dickens’s 100+ word sentence is one that would make most English language teachers blanche, so what is it about this opening that readers find so evocative? And what can we learn from this bending of grammatical rules?

Repetition isn’t always a sin
As writers, we’re often warned against repeating words or sentence formations. Yet parallel structures can be powerful when employed wisely.  As a writer you need to be aware of the effect this has. Dickens’s repeated clauses make the passage feel solemn, liturgical, and even funereal – fitting, in light of what’s to come.

Keep your readers guessing
Readers love to make predictions about what’s coming next – in your plot and in your prose. By pairing opposites (‘best’ and ‘worst’, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’) Dickens allows us to guess the word that will complete the next clause. This is so effective that he doesn’t even need to include the word ‘hell’. It hangs in the air, an unspoken threat.

Lead with drama
Dickens leads with this series of hyperbolic statements only to undercut what he has just said, labelling these descriptors as the protestations of the ‘noisiest authorities’. Yet it is the catchy opening that we remember. As writers, we are often advised to start our novels and chapters with something memorable but we should be aware of how this can alter our prose’s meaning and reception. 

Are there any other famous passages you would like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Exhibition Review: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Whether it’s because of their waspish waists, their uncomfortably large bustles and crinolines, or their much-mentioned prudishness, we have a continued fascination with what Victorians were like under their clothes.

So, finding myself in London unexpectedly this week, the Secret Victorianist paid a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum for the Undressed exhibition, a brief history of fashionable unmentionables, which is now entering its last month on display to the public.

The exhibition covers three centuries and includes a huge array of pieces, from an eighteen-century working woman’s stays to David Beckham’s tighty whities for H&M. But of course it was the Victorian items I was here to see. Here were some of my highlights:

The Duchess of Kent’s drawers: The exhibition didn’t quite allow you to peak under Queen Vic’s petticoats, but you did get to gawk at a pair of her mother’s drawers. These were cumbersome and knee-length and could have provided enough material for 20+ modern day thongs, but the waist was incredibly small, especially given their cut suggests they might have been used for maternity-wear.

A cartoon on the dangers of lacing: I’ve written before (here) about the internal damage that could be done by corsetry. And the V and A displayed this cartoon showing the grim reaper promoting the trend of tight lacing:

Summer corsets: This was something I knew less about previously. The exhibition included several lighter corsets for summer months, which were used by naturally slim women and ladies living in the colonies. In these, whalebone was replaced by strips of ribbon or by netting, making them marginally more comfortable, although I still won’t be racing to try them out in hot weather (especially minus air conditioning…).

David’s fig leaf: Queen Victoria was so horrified when she saw Michelangelo’s David that a fig leaf was commissioned to protect his modesty, or, at least, attendees’ sensibilities. Seeing it here, divided from the statue, made me think about how easy it is to find an exhibition on underwear solely intellectually stimulating, devoid of the ability to shock, shame or titillate.

The exhibition does a wonderful job of exposing the bizarreness of our continued fascination with undergarments (think waist trainers, fetish-wear, underwear as outwear) by divorcing the items on display from the body. What’s left is an enlightening lens through which to examine culture – the Victorians’ and our own.

Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should see? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Charlotte and her Sisters: On the Death of Emily Jane Brontë and On the Death of Anne Brontë

In May 1849, a 33-year-old Charlotte Bronte, who had cared for her younger sisters and brother as the eldest since her older sisters’ deaths in 1825, found herself sibling-less. Branwell Bronte had died the previous September, Emily followed in December and now Anne succumbed in Scarborough, where she was buried apart from the Bronte clan.

Branwell's portrait of his sisters (with painted over self portrait)
Charlotte had turned to writing poetry on the death of Emily. Penned five days after her sister’s death, On the Death of Emily Jane Bronte concentrates on the pain Emily has been spared, but her sisters have to endure in grieving for her – ‘My darling, thou wilt never know/The grinding agony of woe/That we have borne for thee’ – and ends with traditional Christian joy at the better world Emily has gone to (‘We will not wish thee here again’) and the hope afforded by the promised reunion in the afterlife (‘give us rest and joy with thee’).

A month after Anne’s death, Charlotte’s second poem on grieving reads very differently and is much more raw. While her poem for Emily starts with a direct address (‘My darling’), the initial focus of the latter poem is the bleakness of Charlotte’s own existence: ‘There’s little joy in life for me,/And little terror in the grave;/I’ve lived the parting hour to see/Of one I would have died to save.

It is much harder for her to rely on religious comfort when losing Anne also means losing the last of her siblings and continuing her existence alone: ‘And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,/Must bear alone the weary strife’. The poem’s central two stanzas dramatise Charlotte’s internal struggle at her sister’s deathbed – wishing for an end to Anne’s suffering, as she had for Emily, and fearing to go on alone. She is horrified at the ‘stillness that must part/The darling of my life from me’ in the same breath as she expresses her thanks to God for not extending Anne’s pain.

There is no question of which emotion will win out. Charlotte knows that ultimately she is not given a choice. Her life may be ‘weary strife’ but it will continue for as long as God decides (in reality another six years, before she died in the early stages of pregnancy, barely nine months after her marriage).

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist blog about next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Theatre Review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Imperial Theatre, NYC

“No single English novel attains the universality of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace,”
Encyclopedia Brittanica

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 War and Peace is a mammoth undertaking. The story of love, death and philosophy against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia sprawls across four volumes, encompassing nearly 600 characters, and you soon feel immersed in its detailed and vibrant world.

Josh Groban with the cast of The Great Comet
New Broadway musical, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (hereafter The Great Comet), achieves a similar feat, even with its much more limited scope. New York’s Imperial Theatre has been transformed from a traditional proscenium arch into an interactive space, with many spectators sat on the stage, gangways for the performers to cavort through the audience and red velvet hangings and paintings over the walls, allowing you to feel like you have really stepped into a nineteenth-century drawing room.

Dave Malloy’s play dramatises a few chapters of Tolstoy’s novel — the period just prior to the appearance of the comet, including Pierre’s duel and Natasha’s seduction and thwarted abduction. The focus is helpful in terms of improving accessibility (during the first song the chorus even tells you that you should be looking at your programme and consulting the family tree) and creating emotional payoff in a short space of time, although the production was most affecting for me during Pierre (Josh Groban)’s solos, which touched most explicitly on the novel’s broader existential themes.

Denee Benton and Brittain Ashford
There is little dialogue and the music ranges from traditional Russian tunes to old school Broadway ballads to rave and electronica, whatever will best convey the plot and mood, to which the play strives to be loyal. Many of the chorus members play instruments as they move through the crowd and Pierre often frequents the central orchestra pit, taking over at times from the musicians. Groban, along with Denee Benton’s Natasha, Brittain Ashford’s Sonya and Gelsey Bell’s Mary, really is the emotional heart of the drama, but the audience also responds well to the eccentric caricatures – mad Prince Bolonsky (Nicholas Belton), proud Muscovite matriarch Marya (Grace McLean) and ‘hot’ Anatole (Lucas Steele).

If you’re in NYC and up for a riotous night, The Great Comet is definitely a show to watch. Plus it might even help you bluff your way through a conversation about War and Peace

Do you know of any other shows you think the Secret Victorianist should see next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.