The Rose Unfolds Back

In a year of countless celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s  death, The Rose Playhouse performed a miracle. With its Rose Unfolds – Salon Season, the iconic venue reclaimed six Restoration plays by six different women playwrights, with women directors and all-female casts. Over the course of twelve days, The Rose offered two staged readings for each play on the programme, and established a favourable interest with sold-out and well-received performances. Four comedies, one tragedy, and one heroic tragedy gave an opportunity for theatre audiences to be introduced to the Restoration dramatic repertory.

As explained in the event’s leaflet, the (Hon) Artistic Associate and Producer Pepe Pryke found inspiration, as well as courage, after a disappointing visit to last year’s Samuel Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which in his view left Restoration drama under-represented. Particularly, he and his colleagues found help for the choice and production of plays in two pioneering books by Fidelis Morgan: The Female Wits, Women Playwrights of the Restoration (London: Virago Press, 1981) and Female Playwrights of the Restoration – Five Comedies (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1994). The aim of the festival was to host ‘neglected plays […] to be re-examined and performed, shedding light on the pioneering, experimental and successful work of “The Female Wits”.’

The festival opened with The Beau Defeated (1700) by Mary Pix, which made the intention of the season clear from the start. The device of positioning frames around the faces of the fourteen actors to carefully introduce their roles was really effective, and in line with the aim of the director, Natasha Rickman, to ‘keep the audience engaged with the language and on top of what’s happening in every moment’. The society presented in this comedy is made up of stock characters, producing a predictable plot, which succeeds and entertains nonetheless. The feminine world of fans, chairs, and gossip, embodied by Mrs. Rich (Gina Isaac), a widow in search for social validation, collides with the trickery and dissembling of Sir John, convincingly played by Viss Elliot Savafi. Both actors cleverly adapted Restoration comedy mannerisms to a staged reading, without period costumes or props of any sort, and managed to make it a success. Although women are portrayed while conversing on sexual and romantic desires, and they are revealed to be just as deceptive as men, they are still one step behind the opposite sex in the game of love. To pursue her wish to become a noblewoman, Mrs. Rich needs a man. Highly symbolic are the card games interrupted by the arrival of Sir John, which also manages to disrupt the dynamics in an apparently supportive group of women.

For The Basset Table (1705), a comedy written by Susanna Centlivre, just five actors managed to play twelve different roles in the most convincing show of the season. Director Charlotte Ive made impressive use of the space provided by the Rose, as she found in the railing a handy way for the actors to grab costumes, and characters. For this play, actors wore breeches, a nod to the period the play was set in. At the centre of the story are a group of women and their lives at the basset table, run by Lady Reveller, who refuses to marry Lord Worthy. As is typical in Centlivre’s plays, she is contrasted with a rather different woman, her cousin Valeria: well-educated and with a penchant for the study of science. And likewise resembling other Centlivre plays, The Basset Table is a sensitive reflection upon contemporary engagements with gambling, female education, and morality, which creates an irresistible story. The basset table is a double-edged sword: it gives women independence and symbolises their attempt to disengage from male control. But it also takes away moral qualities from all of them, and especially from Lady Reveller, in the eyes of potential suitors, to ‘play so passionately as [they] do’ (to use Valeria’s father’s words).

The Rose Unfolds did not miss the chance to put two Restoration tragedies on stage. One was The Fatal Friendship (1698), by Catherine Trotter. This play, a tragedy on the page, was turned into something different on the stage. The tragedy, intended to relocate and explore the implications in the patriarchal structures of the story, was here turned into an exaggerated and affected contest between the two main female characters, Lamira (Faye Maughan), secretly married to Gramont, and Felicia (Rhiannon Sommers), secretly in love with Gramont, opposed in mannerisms, clothing, and appearance. Their rivalry had time and place throughout to be fought through a ‘war of fans’. Alex Pearson, director of this play, focused her efforts on ensuring that ‘the laughs kept coming during the elements of the madness of the tragedy’. Whilst this attitude proved successful among the clearly entertained audience, it is not totally in line with the aim of the story itself. The fatal friendship is that between Gramont and Castalio, fellow officer and kept as a war prisoner, which will cost them their lives. Convinced by his own father, Gramont marries Lamira with the hope to use her money to pay his son’s ransom. This provokes the fury of Felicia and Lamira, unwitting  participants in a bigamous relationship. It also earns Castalio’s frustration. Their fatal friendship resolves in the accidental stabbing of Castalio by Gramont, ultimately showing him to be the main character, whose actions determined everyone else’s fate. Clearly, to accentuate Gramont’s storyline would have required this production to foreground the tragic hues of the play, in contrast with the director’s aim. It would have also meant downplaying the roles of the female characters, which are here, instead, heavily manipulated in order to peek into their dynamics of gossiping, dissembling, and courting; not only because these are typical features of Restoration comedy, but also because this Festival intentionally speaks about women.

The other tragedy, more precisely heroic tragedy, received a similar treatment. Delarivier Manley’s The Royal Mischief (1696) was directed by Kate Handford, whose aim to ‘put out the good, the bad, and the sexy’ succeeded. As with the first play of the series, The Beau Defeated, the characters are here introduced with care to the audience at the very beginning, following Fidelis Morgan’s edition. In the role of Homais, played originally by Elizabeth Barry, was the perfect Gemma Clough, embodying the licentiousness of this production. Possibly the sexiest of all six plays, its actors (very much at ease with the staged reading more than others) delightfully enticed with their accentuated passions. The inevitable destiny for the mischiefs committed by such lascivious characters is the ultimate punishment: death. Homais, confined in the Castle of Phasia by her impotent husband, the Prince of Libardian, falls in love with Levan Dadian, nephew of her husband, and married. The enthralling beauty of Homais is further accentuated by her servant Acmat, a eunuch, wonderfully played by Georgie Jones, whose presence informs the audience of Homais’ suitors and of her desires. The complexity of Homais, a beautiful character constantly rebelling against factual and verbal imprisonments of her femininity, was sometimes not acknowledged. Homais’ poignant death reveals her as the unrepentant heroine who hopes that ‘there feast at large what we but tasted here’. But while her husband stabs her, he elicits laughter from the audience – as do the other tragic deaths of the story. Partly a consequence of the affected acting style, more appropriate to a comedy, this is a very important aspect worth investigating before the full productions next year.

She Ventures and He Wins (1695) was ‘A woman’s treat’, as the prologue tells us (even if not performed on this occasion). This play was written by the pseudonymous “Ariadne”. Out of the six plays chosen for the festival, She Ventures and He Wins is probably the riskiest one, because of its extremely weak, as well as familiar, plot. The protagonist is Charlotte, a rich heiress, determined to find a husband attracted by her mind, rather than her money. Marnie Nash, director of this play, wanted ‘Charlotte’s attitude to marry for love’ to be as clear as possible; it is indeed a pleasure to follow Charlotte in her journey of cross-dressing and tricks to test the love of Lovewell, the man she chooses as husband. Lovewell stays enamoured of Charlotte and of his idea of her persona even when he is tested in multiple ways, making them both winners for her ventures. It is the wit of Charlotte which makes up for an otherwise dull and slow play. The story quite easily explores the limitations imposed upon the female gender and their efforts to overcome these. For this reason, She Ventures and He Wins is thought to have been unsuccessful in its time,[1] but  it is worth putting on stage today precisely because of this.

Finally, the wit of memorable female characters was mesmerizing in the best-received play of the Festival, The Feigned Courtesans by Aphra Behn. Produced for the stage of the Duke’s Theatre in 1679, it was also the earliest of the six plays for The Rose Unfolds. In the hands of Jenny Eastop, the play took on irresistible life and movement in the limited space of the Rose Playhouse. On the second of the two performances, acts three and four were cut, due to time restrictions of the venue. With The Feigned Courtesans, we see Restoration drama at its peak. First of all, the atmosphere recreated by actors and characters was in keeping with the original intentions of Restoration playwrights: jokes and disguises worked, and the interaction with the audience was playful and effective. One example was the attention many men in audience gave to Cornelia and Marcella, as they charmingly exposed their plans. Marcella and Cornelia are the feigned courtesans, with the fake names of Euphemia and Silvianetta, enjoying what would be deemed as immoral on the stage a few years later: dissembling. While in Rome to escape a disappointing destiny of arranged marriage or nunnery, they encounter Fillamour and Galliard, their respective lovers in London. In a surprisingly successful reproduction of the famous night scene, Marcella dresses up as a page to help Fillamour avoid the encounter with Octavio, originally betrothed to her. The Feigned Courtesans is a play of intrigues, beautifully displaying the life of Restoration London, even if set in Rome, with its culture of parks, and witty women attempting to affirm independence of thought. When the night has passed and the characters meet and understand the events, the play closes with a happy ending for both couples. Sophie Greenham’s performance deserves a separate mention for outshining the marvellous cast with a perfect Sir Signal Buffoon, an irresistible fool.

The Rose Unfolds – Salon Season chose the perfect structure for the audience to grow familiar with Restoration drama and to develop a decent understanding of its theatricality play after play over the course of twelve days. It had the merit to unearth not only women-authored plays, but specifically less famous ones – differently from bigger theatres which typically rely on more familiar texts. The Rose Unfolds was a daring experiment, and a successful one. The act of putting on stage six Restoration plays in such a well-known but small theatre was ambitious, but it certainly paid off. Audiences had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with lesser-known texts, and to witness the wonderful talent of so many young female actors and directors. In this sense, Pepe Pryke and his collaborators managed to reproduce and recreate the original atmosphere of post-Restoration theatres, bringing a gust of much needed fresh air on the theatrical scene of London. It will be a wonderful experience to watch these plays as full productions for the International Women’s Day and Women of the World Festival on London’s South Bank in 2017. It is reassuring that such productions will benefit from a more in-depth consideration of the different genres and that music, understandably cut from the scripts for the festival, will be restored.

[1] Maximilian Novak finds the ‘feminist reversal of sexual orders’ the reason for the unfortunate staging of the play. (“The Closing of Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1695”, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 14 [1975]: 51-52 (p.51).

The Rose Unfolds season was held at the Rose Playhouse, London, from 6th to 18th September 2016. The productions will be staged again to coincide with International Women’s Day in 2017.