Thursday, 12 March 2020

Faustus: That Damned Woman

"My name is Johanna Faustus. I was born almost four hundred years ago.
I gave my soul to achieve the impossible.
I watched this city grow sick and I swore to heal it.
I might be damned, but I would save the world to spite the Devil.”

In this strident new production of Faustus, the Headlong Theatre Company and writer Chris Bush have re-imagined the story with a female Faustus (played with astonishing certainty by the very talented Jodie McNee) and put a feminist twist on the whole thing. Currently being performed at Bristol Old Vic, Faustus: That Damned Woman is an engaging production that will definitely make you think. 

The set by Ana InĂ©s Jabares-Pita hits you first. As you take your seat in the auditorium, you look up and see an enormous shell-like, cave-like abyss, tunneling back into the very bowels of the Old Vic. It is extremely effective. And later on, it becomes somewhere for the cast to hide, seek shelter, emerge from and for the audiences to see assorted images projected as we follow Johanna Faustus’ story.

In these times of cornoavirus-infused uncertainty, the story of a society battling the plague is remarkably prescient. Johanna is seeking information about her mother who was killed for being a witch, when in reality she was merely a herbalist. Brought up by her apothecary father, Johanna wants knowledge about her mother, about medicine, about how to combat the threat of plague and about how to succeed as a woman. 

She strikes a deal with the devil (Barnaby Power). In exchange for a glance in his book of the dead to see if her mother really was a witch, she promises to give the devil her soul for all eternity… just as soon as she has completed her 144 years of life. Those being 144 years when she doesn’t age, needs no sleep and can fast forward (but not backwards) through time to whatever era she chooses. All in the pursuit of knowledge. And all with the devil’s servant Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Wynter in sterling slime-ball mode) by her side, trying to trip her up.

Hoping to beat the devil at his own game, Faustus wants to cure disease, empower women and prove that good can triumph over evil. She meets medical pioneers including Marie Curie and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose presence brings an extra layer of meaning to the production (aided by strong performances by Alicia Charles and Emannuella Cole). She is haunted by the torture her mother endured, which Faustus witnesses via supernatural methods. 

But ultimately, does any of this do Johanna Faustus or womankind in general any good? That is for the audience to decide. 

Faustus: That Damned Woman is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 21 March. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Women of Bristol Old Vic

In time for International Women’s Day, Bristol Old Vic is launching a series of interviews and stories based on women from the theatre's past and present. The sound installation, Women of Bristol Old Vic, brings the voices of women in theatre to the front of the stage and celebrates their achievements across theatrical history.

The seven installations combine archive material, oral histories and locations across the theatre’s foyer. There are seven QR codes, which can be found throughout Bristol Old Vic’s foyer, and each unlocks a story about the women of the theatre, from the first female theatre manager Sarah Macready (who is included in volume one of my book The Women Who Built Bristol) to Wise Children’s artistic director Emma Rice.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

'Romantics Anonymous'

Just delightful. Everyone said it would be and, for once, everyone was right. Directed by Emma Rice of Wise Children, Romantics Anonymous is a sweet, charming and joyous story that will really warm your heart. 

Angelique (Carly Bawden) is a gifted chocolatier who is crippled by shyness, yet finds an outlet for her chocolates thanks to the kind Monsieur Mercier (Gareth Snook) who lets her hide behind him. But once he dies, her life is thrown into disarray and she needs to pull herself together. This leads her to The Chocolate Factory, where she meets the socially awkward Jean-Rene (Marc Antolin) and, slowly but surely, the chocolatey wheels of love start turning. 

The mannerisms of an awkward new romance are perfectly executed, and there are lots of delightful moments here: Jean-Renet's staff peeking through his office blinds, Angelique being followed by a car, the mumbler at the self-help meeting, and many more. All of these small touches are what shapes the body of Romantics Anonymous to be the excellent show that it is. 

Originally created in 2017 by Emma Rice while she was still at Shakespeare's Globe, Romantics Anonymous has rightly taken on a life of its own to become a much-loved show by theatre-goers all over the UK. After its Bristol run, the performance is heading to America, where it will doubtless by embraced by theatre fans there, too. 

An Emma Rice production is always a good thing, and there's really nothing to dislike about Romantics Anonymous. Infectious songs well sung; a pretty French set; excellent performances; and plenty of laughs along the way. This is a hot-water bottle production - it's feelgood, comforting and just what you need on a cold, drizzly, winter evening. I left with the songs ringing through my head for the rest of the night. 

Romantics Anonymous is performed at the Bristol Old Vic until February 1. Click here for more information and to book tickets. Although the show is travelling to the US from March, if you happen to be over there. 

Monday, 27 January 2020

'The Unstoppable Letty Pegg'

I've been banging on for about a decade now about my enthusiasm for novels about the suffrage campaign and, more specifically, novels aimed at younger readers about the suffrage campaign. In recent years, what with the centenary in 2018 of some women getting the vote, there has been an outpouring of such books and I have been delighted to see this. Not least because a fair few of them have been more adventurous than the standard narrative of: working-class girl bumps into upper-class lady who educates her in the ways of suffrage, introduces her to Emmeline Pankhurst, there's a force feeding scene and a chaste romance with somebody's brother. 

But this new novel by Iszi Lawrence is one of the most imaginative, inventive suffrage books I've read to date, and the first to tackle the - true- story of the women who learned jiu jitsu so that they could defend themselves from the police and others who tried to do them harm in their campaign. 

The Unstoppable Letty Pegg (published on 6 February 2020) has the unusual premise of a suffragette who is married to a policeman, while bringing up a pre-teen daughter who, of course, gets caught up in the fight for the vote. But this is very much Letty's story. 

While following her mum to a suffragette march one day (which becomes the infamous Black Friday), Letty witnesses the appalling police brutality and sexual assaults rained down upon these women (sadly based on fact), and she ends up meeting the small but mighty Edith Garrud (a real woman) who runs a dojo in Soho where she teaches jiu jitsu to women to help them stay safe. And this is the central point around which Letty's story centres. Although there are also sub-plots concerning a mixed-race friend, a misogynist teacher, family secrets and a disapproving grandmother. 

The fact that Iszi is herself a jiu jitsu practitioner (is that the right word?) only lends credibility to the descriptions of the fights and moves as Letty comes to them, and Iszi's experiences really shine through. The reader can totally visualise the scenes, even if - like me - you don't know the first thing about jiu jitsu. 

It's fantastic to see a different aspect of the struggle for women's suffrage being highlighted, and in a novel that does not glamourise the militant suffragettes, who many historians have issue with. Indeed, in The Unstoppable Letty Pegg, at times Iszi seems to urge caution in the reader against only seeing the purple, white and green of the Pankhursts' campaign and she instead points out some of the other groups who peacefully lobbied for the vote. And for this alone I salute Iszi. The historical details and accuracy here are also fantastic, and don't lean back on tired old myths like some books I've read. 

Now, the next suffrage novel I want to read is one set pre-1903 that makes no reference to suffragettes, Pankhursts, prisons or force-feeding, and instead focuses on the peaceful sheroes who had been at this for decades beforehand. It'll be a hard sell into a publisher but, my word, those stories are there to be told and they will make a damn fine read.

In the meantime, grab yourself a copy of 
The Unstoppable Letty Pegg (it is aimed at readers aged 9-13, though there's nothing to stop older people in, say, their 40s enjoying it, ahem) and buy one for the youngsters in your life. And not just the girls. These are stories boys need to know as well. Thanks, Iszi.