It is encouraging to witness the eighteenth century still inspiring theatrical performance beyond the re-enactment or rewriting of an existing play. Riddlestick Theatre’s latest production takes its inspiration from a long—and sometimes understated—tradition of female collecting during the eighteenth century. In this provocative and fun interactive performance, the imagined Madame Fanny takes her rightful place amongst eminent collecting ladies of the age, such as Elizabeth Percy, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, and Sarah Sophia Banks. After being nominated as one of The Guardian’s best shows of the Edinburgh Fringe 2018, The Cabinet of Madame Fanny du Thé, written and directed by Katie Stokes and Tom Manson, is now making a limited tour of the UK.
Madame Fanny du Thé (Stokes) is introduced to the audience as a lady of the world. Dissatisfied with the expectations placed upon her by Georgian aristocratic society, Fanny turns to travel, and has many a story to share. Illustrating these stories are her trinkets, housed in her precious cabinet, which calls upon the early-modern conception of the ‘Kunstkabinett’ or the cabinet of curiosities. These cabinets (originally referring to entire rooms) aimed to organise and categorise collections of natural history and antiquities, often procured through worldly exploration. They stand as precursors to the modern museum and many curated collections survive today in such a form, namely the collections of Sir Hans Sloane (the British Museum) and Elias Ashmole (the Ashmolean). But, falling short of Sloane’s meticulously categorised natural sampling, I would say that Fanny’s cabinet may have more in common with Hackney’s Viktor Wynd Museum in its dedication to chaotic and occasionally morbid intrigue. Far from an exercise in antiquarian preservation, Fanny’s cabinet houses various mementos (and the odd severed extremity) from her scandalous exploits abroad.
Accompanied by her faithful servants, Fanny addresses the audience and encourages them to take a peek inside her cabinet. Unsurprisingly, the stalls remain silent. Given the typically British hesitance towards audience participation, this is perhaps an expected side effect of the Pleasance Theatre’s intimate size. However, any awkward silence is quickly and artfully cloaked by Stokes’s wit and skills of improvisation. Improvisation can of course never be perfect, but I doubt Riddlestick was aiming for ‘perfect’ with Madame Fanny. The performance style is playful, slapstick, and delightfully imperfect. And it is this element of imperfection that makes Fanny so endearing. Despite some empty seats (no doubt down to lack of exposure rather than lack of talent), the cast gave the performance their all and each audience member was made to feel both valued and implicated in Fanny’s story-telling. In true period style, the front row sat on the stage.
Each item picked from the cabinet by the audience comes with an associated back-story, its own song and dance satirising an aspect of eighteenth-century culture. A Frenchman’s severed finger brings forth an elaborate origin story of fashionable French high society, in which Fanny is invited to party with Marie Antoinette. Another curio leads us to the tale of El Leche, a milk-spewing Spaniard, met on the road of the Grand Tour. Fanny is aided in her story-telling by the aforementioned gang of musically-gifted cross-dressing servants. Tales of woe, tales of science – every anecdote sees the servants taking on a varied cast of characters, each one more eccentric than the last.
Riddlestick describe themselves as ‘playing with traditional forms of story-telling’ and this is most definitely the case. Ironically however, this particular show seems to play with various aspects of performance which can be considered conventional within an eighteenth-century context. Musical performance, cross-dressing, and audience participation (encouraged or otherwise) were all predictable elements of eighteenth-century theatre. Performers occupy the dual role of actor and musician, and all but Stokes and cellist Sophie Jackson embody any number of parts constituting Madame Fanny’s extravagant tale-telling. This is of course not to downplay Jackson’s fabulous performance. Beyond her musical talent, her occasional but impeccably well-timed one-liners only enrich an already entertaining script. Another particular highlight comes in the form of Alison Cowling’s El Leche, brought to life through ingenious use of props and vocal expression to a most hilarious end. Props are particularly important for this show, and their simplicity (think rubber brains, eye patches, and fabric sheeting) can only supplement Riddlestick’s playfulness and mischievous charm.
However, Madame Fanny does not come without recognition of the century’s constraints on a woman’s agency. Throughout the performance, a mysterious voice calls Fanny’s name from the background. Each time it emerges, we are told not to worry ourselves; the show must go on. Ultimately however, this ‘voice of reason’ serves as an uncomfortable reminder of Fanny’s place in eighteenth-century society. Like some of her historical contemporaries, Fanny’s collecting is dismissed by her family as frivolous and fanciful—a far cry from the illustrious and intellectual assemblages of male collectors. Against her will, she is sent away by her brother to be married. Absent in the show’s concluding moments, Fanny is a reminder of the ruthless reality faced by many middling and aristocratic women; a life at the mercy of the marriage market’s beckoning call. At the end of a most wonderful and humorous show, the silencing of Fanny ends only with the commencement of much deserved applause.
The Cabinet of Madame Fanny du Thé was at The Pleasance Theatre, London, from 19th to 23rd March, 2019. It is at The Warren as part of the Brighton Fringe from 4th to 6th May 2019, and at the Edinburgh Fringe from 31st July to 26th August 2019.