Restoration Theatre was the arena in which women first had the opportunity to both write and act, possessing a previously unavailable freedom in the public sphere. April de Angelis’ Playhouse Creatures explores the lives of five female actresses who worked on the stage during this period, a time when theatre was one of the only means of employment for women. With women acting, writing, and becoming shareholders, it was a period of promise for women, and this excitement spilled over into the actresses’ performances in the production currently running at the Burton Taylor Studio.
The all-female cast playing Nell Gwyn, Elizabeth Farley, Rebecca Marshall, Doll Common and Mary Betterton were collectively superb, but Gwenno Jones as Nell Gwyn and Amy Perkis as Mrs Betterton particularly stood out. Nell Gwyn has become a figure of myth over the centuries but seeing her in this incarnation, young and completely carefree, the original ‘pretty witty Nell’ as Pepys called her, was a delight. Jones managed to convey a sense of both her naïveté and capriciousness without becoming a stereotype, nuancing the performance with alternate glimpses of Nell’s toughness, of her childish, impulsive ambitiousness, and of the more thoughtful, compassionate side she shows towards Elizabeth Farley, for example. Perkis played Mrs Betterton expertly, allowing the audience to see the intelligence and commitment beneath the — initially — reserved and conscientious woman. Playhouse Creatures is a fantastic text, scattered with allusions to the world of Restoration Theatre, to great women like Aphra Behn and other prominent personalities. But it is not just the script that is commendable about this performance — the acting and staging combine to make the play sparkle with comedy whilst delivering a biting critique of the murkier world of Restoration sexual politics.
Angelis examines how the womens’ positions, even in the theatre — even as the wife of a theatre owner, in the case of Mrs Betterson — were precarious. Women remained under men’s control within a patriarchal system, despite the illusion of holding new-found power. Nell hungers for stage, thinking it will give her the power to reject her old life of serving drinks at a public house. And at first, it certainly seems so. The women talk of becoming shareholders, advancing politically, financially, and intellectually. Yet the audience is constantly reminded that women have to be physically tempting to be on stage. Elizabeth Farley (Lydie Sheehan) and Rebecca Marshall (Charlotte Cohen) spent the majority of the play laced up in corsets and not much else. The women on stage are seen as ‘whores’, but they are left in a double bind as it is audience demand that forced them to appear this way. Due to this, Mrs Betterton, the most skilled actress among the cohort with years of experience, is told by her own husband that she can no longer act when she reaches a certain age. She appears to be driven insane by this act of subjugation, repeating Lady Macbeth’s lines over and over. The only female Shakespearean character that Mrs Betterton ‘likes’ is Lady Macbeth, standing on the cusp of both power and madness, and this is strikingly sad in a woman who only wants to become a shareholder in a theatre, forced to ask this from her husband when she has supported him for so long.
These actresses are powerful and ambitious — women who cannot relate to women like Ophelia and Desdemona— but must, because they are the only representations of femininity on the stage. These parts are in stark contrast to those written for men, roles which were less prescriptive and allowed for more freedom. The play is ultimately about freedom — how women longed for it so desperately and, arguably, couldn’t even find it in the theatre. Liberty could be taken away at any point; they are at the disposal of men and must turn on each other in order to survive. When Elizabeth Farley (Lydie Sheehan) becomes pregnant the others abandon her to the streets, just as she will then abandon her child. Sheehan clings to a petticoat in place of her child, the only remaining item she has that reminds her of the theatre and a symbol of men’s power over women, monetarily, politically and sexually. Rebecca Marshall meanwhile is hounded by a man from her past and ultimately, ruined by him, forced into hiding. Throughout the play she is ruthless towards the others, but she must be so in order to survive. Likewise, Doll’s bitterness sustains her, conveyed convincingly by Hannah Marsters. Particularly haunting were her reminisces about the dancing bears her father used to keep: the women seem to have replaced these performing animals, a powerful allegory for the social status of the new actresses.
The intimacy of the Burton Taylor Studio suited the production well, drawing the audience into the performance. Spotlighting allowed attention to focus on just one character at a time as they delivered their monologues. The set was plain, with only a few props used throughout the play. This contributed to a sense of the community these women felt with each other, the homeliness of the theatre to them and its existence as the one place they could come closest to being themselves. The simple staging also made it hard to distinguish immediately whether the actresses were performing on their stage or performing to the present audience when they launched into monologues, which worked well, allowing the play to become a meta-commentary on theatre’s power over an audience. The staging also allowed us to see the claustrophobic world that women inhabited, trapped in just one room behind the stage — and yet it is a room of their own. The costumes were equally well thought-though: Mrs Betterton increasingly wears the widows’ weeds she once used on stage in everyday life as the play progresses and she is forced to leave the theatre. Similarly, her once neatly arranged hair falls around her shoulders, her confident appearance diminishing under the increasing pressures she faces. These small details contributed hugely to the overall impact of the play: there was something hugely poignant about Mrs Betterton complete subjugation.
This production illuminated the many aspects of the play’s remarkable characters and their paradoxical relationship with the theatre. The tragedy of their lives was briefly alleviated by the friendships they formed in the little world they had created, a world apart from men, filled with comedy but interlaced with pain. It made for a spellbinding and striking performance.
‘Playhouse Creatures’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 7th November: for more information and to book tickets, please visit their website.