[Review:] DIRTY CORSET, The Pleasance Theatre, London.
NB: The 'characters' presented to us in this performance have been left unnamed. For purposes of distinction, forenames will be included to refer to the actors' roles, and full names or surnames will be included in reference to the actors themselves.
This is a fun, quirky and unique performance whose peculiar comedy is endearing and refined. It lacks, however, a great sense of underlying structure
In an official promotion of the performance, the creatives write, ‘Set in the dying embers of the 17th Century in the North of England, follow a company of tragic actors failing to live up to their onstage personas.’ Unfortunately, this context is simply not clear at all, and only by motivated perception after being informed externally of the creatives’ intentions here can one understand the context of these characters and the narrative of this play. The play is certainly thematically consistent with its lewd, gory, self-indulgent and sexual humour, but theme alone is sometimes not sufficient to unite the various materials in a performance, as is the case here, and when narrative is confused, the play suffers a further downfall.
Whilst seeing them attempting to ‘live up’ to their onstage personae is certainly not communicated at all, it only becomes apparent towards the latter part of this performance that we are dealing here with ‘tragic actors’ as our main characters, though a few references to representations have undeniably been included. This is due to the fact that the overall context is left esoteric, with early allusions being limited to Laurie Coldwell’s ‘You’ve come to see me’, as one example. Lines such as this one are particularly ambiguous, given that we are, indeed, watching a performance in reality. As opposed to seeing these as fictional struggling actors, it is easy to confuse these as mere clown-like representations, metatheatrically aware of the true environment of the performance space, of the presence of the audience, etc. In this way, the differentiation between fictional actor and metatheatrical actor needs to be concreter and expanded upon.
Furthermore, it is unclear as to which ‘reality type’ these characters exist within at any given moment, for they are represented so differently with every appearance. For example, the same characters who take off Laurie’s nose or pull ridiculously huge clumps of pus from their undergarments [more caricatural, fantastical] are supposedly those who forget their lines and argue amongst each other [less extreme, more realistic], this time using language as opposed to almost slapstick physical movement and caricatural expression as their means of communication. There are no definitive or, more importantly, consistent characteristics that differentiate the ‘tragic actors’ from their ‘tragic parts’, either, allowing the two worlds to bleed too seamlessly into one another. I am afraid that more than merely putting on a wig is needed for such a differentiation. Part of the problem is that the characters are never entirely introduced to us but, after a short display of embarrassment and hesitancy, merely begin their ludicrous presentations, expecting that we simply come along unquestioningly for the ride. In this way, this performance currently relies far too heavily upon the audience’s pre-existing understanding of the play’s setup and has no explanatory voice of its own.
Further complicating how we are to read these characters, there is also a lack of consistency across the acting styles of these performers, with Susannah Scott’s expressivity being intensely and predominantly facial and physical; Codwell’s, vocal; and Ellen Wilson’s, rather unextreme compared to the other two. I would recommend a greater familiarity across the actors here. Whilst this need for familiarity is certainly understood by the creatives, seeing the characters assuming similar poses, very similarly dressed with similar fashions of speaking, this needs to be far intenser where the performers' characterisations are concerned specifically. It is the individual objectives and fixations of the characters — Laurie’s vanity and Susannah’s adoration for Ellen [Ellen's own is unidentifiable, which is an issue] — that will must then be used to individualise them as necessary.
However, there are definite positives to this performance, which make it a most delectable and enjoyable performance. Though theme is not enough alone here to render this performance coherent and legible and to offer it purpose and direction, it certainly provides it with a clear, recognisable and captivating aesthetic. Lasciviousness, jealousy, diseased bodies, sensuality and lavish decoration certainly call upon the risqué, disobedient and indulgent themes of Restoration drama and the Stuart Restoration period in general. Costume is wonderfully designed for this purpose, and the set in its simplicity has been intelligently and imaginatively incorporated into the performance. Most multifunctional. Set decorations — the makeshift clothesline looping around the entirety of the performance space, holding wigs and dress pieces — continue to evoke this unstable sense of multiplicity, however: that the actors represent various personalities and caricatures united by the theme of the Restoration, as opposed to these fictional ‘tragic actors’. Although, in retrospect, I can see that if context was better introduced and content better structured, this set would be appropriate to allude to a dressing room of sorts. Having the set protrude into the audience's territory is also a good means of uniting the audience with the work, given that this is a desire of the creatives.
Perhaps more importantly, the performers are also sufficiently invigorated and present in this performance. They have excellent awareness as regards comedic timing and, overall, perform their various activities with commitment, integrity and credibility. Intimacy work, seeing the characters jump on, wrestle and passionately make out with each other is also handled with great ease and unrestraint. What could be rather awkward and extreme actions are executed brilliantly. The performers also have great command over their physical interactions with set-pieces, using them much to their advantage. Interactions with the audience, though debatable formally, are also handled well by the cast, bold and unforgiving.
This brings me on to metatheatricality. Whilst the use of metatheatrical techniques are somewhat consistent in this performance, how this metatheatricality complements the material is questionable. Ellen accusing random audience members of having an affair with her lover, or Laurie 'masturbating' over another, are most disruptive means of ensuring that the audience become aware of the space and of the artificial mechanics of theatre, of themselves and the Others around them, and, more generally, of their relationships to their overall environment. This performance does not benefit from such interactions, which are equally poorly introduced and contextualised.
Regardless of this lack of structure and unity, the comedic material is certainly well-conceived in its ludicrousness, outlandishness and extremity. For the most part, the performers also execute this with excellent expressivity and vigour. Extremer material, such as the aforementioned detached nose and clump of pus, are revoltingly hilarious, and their further extremifications, e.g. Ellen passionately licking the imagined hole where Laurie's nose used to be, is bold and inspired.
This performance has a long way to go, but I would certainly recommend it as a performance to watch.