First Women in Theatre Cygnet
Playhouse Creatures. Cygnet Theatre, Exeter
The lime light and the low lives. The highs, followed by the desperate depths of depression. Yes, the ecstasy of a good performance and the despair of rejection were some of the themes touched upon in Playhouse Creatures at Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre directed by Amanda Knott.
In many ways an actor’s life is unchanged from the era of the Restoration to that of today. There’s the exhilaration of performance and the plaudits that follow to the black doom of unemployment and a life in the shadows. So it is in April De Angelis’ drama about early English actresses in the late 17th century.
The actresses in question were Nell Gwyn (Sofia Castro), Mrs Farley (Helen Kirk), Mrs Betterton (Kaja Pecnik) and Mrs Marshall (Jessica Parsons).
Their lives were linked together by the droll and deadpan persona of Mrs Betterton’s dresser and char lady Doll Common (Rosalind Williams) whose prosaic pronouncements on theatre, bear pits, drink, corsets and pregnancy kept the audience chuckling throughout the two act play.
For students of English Literature and drama this is a rich era with the first generation of female actors cast in Shakespearean revivals, Restoration comedies by John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege amid the murky world of Georgian society where actresses were mentioned in the same breath as prostitutes.
Williams as Doll Common was a masterclass in character acting with her drab persona and earthy comments on life in 17th century London. She shuffled around the wide stage rearranging the racks of costumes and various props with an air of ‘I’ve seen it all before’ and ‘I’ve done it all before.’
Also outstanding was Kaja Pecnik as Mrs Betterton who despite her youth was able to powerfully convey the frustrations of an actress whose fading beauty were rejected by her actor husband. And a husband who humiliated her as she was forced to see a younger Mrs Betterton usurp her position. The issue of older women on stage is something the 21st century still wrestles with today.
There was strong support from the rest of the cast but the earthy humour, street wit and sensual body language of Nel Gwynn was replace by an ever smiling Sofia Castro who was more head girl than courtesan, but kept the drama spinning along with a feeling we were watching posh girls being a bit naughty rather than experiencing the true smut of the 1660s. Castro’s Anglo Saxon repartee was more received Dictionary of Slang rather than the feel of the bawdy-house.
The stories were well-told even though much of the earthy reality was missing. Kaja however provided some memorable moments with her Lady Macbeth’s “out damn spot” speech which in particular seized the audience’s attention with a powerful portrayal of a woman on the brink of insanity.
Not bad and at times hitting some dramatic highs. An entertaining and rewarding student show with its universal theme of an actor’s life with its highs and lows. As Doll Common always says, “an actress must always have an audience.”
Harry Mottram