Playhouse provocation

Playhouse Creatures (HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

August 28 – 29

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It was a case of women of the stage meeting Queens of the Stone Age at Brisbane’s Garden’s Theatre on Tuesday night as Hit Production’s “Playhouse Creatures” delivered against a doof doof background underlay. The result was quite the juxtaposition as the sepia toned staging and solo cello sounds (courtesy of Director Jordan Best) charted audience travel back to the Restoration period of 1669 England, when women were first allowed to appear on stage, upon decree from King Charles II, recently returned from exile in France.

The podium-style staging, with changerooms downstairs was once a bear pit we are told by rough-as-guts, cockney attendant Doll Common (Liz Bradley), until it became to Playhouse upon whose stage the female troupe appears as the best thing to happen to theatre. They are a group of playhouse creatures of all sorts, passionate off stage and on, as they act with raised arms in woe (following a ‘hands of the clock’ emotive acting technique) as much as breast bared in fervour, playing out some instantly recognisable key scenes. (The witches’ ‘double double toil and trouble’ introduction from Shakespeare’s Scottish play towards the end of Act One is a particular treat).

On-stage the women play not Thane nor Moor or Prince, but have found roles just as substantial, only in legacy of when female roles were both written and played by men, as we see as Mrs Betterton (Karen Vickery) tries to rid herself of that damn’d spot as Lady Macbeth. Too often, they are rather relegated to the roles of unfaithful wife, whore and mistress.

After meeting Mrs Farley (Yanina Clifton), 16-year-old barmaid Nell Gywnn (Zoe Priest) talks her way into the theatre company of Mr Thomas Betterton through his wife and the leading actress, much to the annoyance of the essentially angry Mrs Marshall (Emma Wood). Nell just wants to be on stage so quests to overcome her performance anxiety to stand alongside the others, and in doing so catches the eye of the King. Regardless of their individual stories, however, the troubles of the women are clear as they work under constant personal threats while doing what they can to draw a crowd.

There is an enormous authenticity that adds to the appeal of this show. The characters have been enlivened from the inspiration of some of the most prominent actresses of the era, including Nell Gwynn and Mary Betterton, who performed on stage at a time when no ‘respectable’ woman pursued an acting career. Swearing and crass mannerisms capture the bawdy and troublesome time and two level staging adds interest when  the podium that serves as the era’s stage is not providing distraction of creaking sounds as they move about. Costuming is authentic, but also interest in seeing how the garments are put-upon the body, while all-the-time presenting a notable emphasis of the constraints of women.

There is a clear feminist theme throughout the show’s talk of female freedoms and the celebration of women working together rather than tearing each other down. But there are dark tones too as we are graphically presented with the reality of the sacrifices some had to make to be on stage. And as the self-described ‘old and eccentric’ at the end of her career veteran Mrs Betterton, retiring due to failing audience interest while her husband continues to act opposite her younger successor, Vickery gives a masterclass monologue about the allure and addition of acting.

In its at-once moving and comic account of the women’s precarious on-and-off-stage lives, “Playhouse Creatures” is a show of decent duration, however, its story is so fascinating and its performances so engaging that its experience seems to fly by. Generally speaking, it shows the role of initial provocation in provision of an ultimate lasting legacy. More resolutely though it reminds us of the courage of pioneering women upon whose shoulders we humbly hold our modern selves.

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