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[Review:] KATHRYN HOWARD, The Hope Theatre, London.

This performance appropriates the figure of Catherine Howard (Kathryn Howard in the play) as a synecdoche for the abused, objectified and prejudiced female. Through her subjection, it explores misogyny, sexism, social classifications, silenced cries and sexual abuse. Yet, despite how broad this seems, and despite the extending poignancy of some of Kathryn monologues, this exploration is not particularly profound or enlightening.

The material of this play primarily comprises behaviours indirectly attributed with misogyny today, focusing more on the widespread effects sexism has on the social realities of women in its induction of gossiping, competitiveness, self-discrimination and inward/outward prejudice, primarily concerning itself with beauty, grace and sexuality. This play also depicts, though with little depth and particularity, how these norms mature within the female psyche over time, how the status of women is quickly understood as of primordial importance, the first item of deliberation in any social interaction.

Yet, this play primarily concerns itself with both female solidarity and conflict. One aspect of this I rather favour is when newcomers with the name Kathryn are told that they share their name with around five others and that other names retain a stronger uniqueness and hence specialness. This is one way in which this performance successfully nullifies any sense of individuality, ascribing to all women a singular collective identity which they must find ways of differentiating themselves from (in this case, by finding different nicknames). Then, there is the use of a chorus (movement directed by Emmanuela Lia). This provides an excellent ground for demonstrating Kathryn’s isolation, with her being oftentimes still in the centre of their bustling, as well as the themes of female solidarity, and secrets and rumours. This latter is represented well by the clandestine exchange of red letters amongst the chorus, their backs turned to us, the letters becoming overwhelming in their amount. I also want to note here the efficacy of having these letters actually written upon, rather than plain which is usually a common oversight in theatre. However, I would have preferred them to not be so visible until this exchange, vibrantly red and glaring at us through the pocket of Emmanuela Lia’s (playing Kit) white blouse for the entire play before their use.

Unfortunately, the chorus is not always used effectively in this performance. Lines were awkwardly divided amongst the chorus members, which worsened progressively as the play went on, and movements became very repetitive and hence very bland. Seeming quite strong at first, this fate was most disappointing. Movements also started to become rather sloppy, where walking on the grid was concerned; what should have been sharp directional changes or straight walks became corner-cutting wobbles, and synchronicity was vastly lacking in places. I must admit that this play could definitely have benefitted from a larger performance space, its movements being rather large and overbearing in comparison. However, I feel that the problem resides more in an inability to tailor the movement to the existing space, rather than the other way around.

The decision to have the chorus break apart sporadically, for its members to multi-role as both narrators and characters in the story, felt much too disconnected. One reason for this is the disparate shift in writing style between chorus member and character, and another is that the topography continually suggested that the chorus would be reassembled, that these character interactions were temporary and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This latter made it seem as though the chorus members were each representing characters rather than embodying them, making the very material of the play seem distanced from us.

This brings me on to characterisation. The acting style in this performance was extremely invariant, having two main modes: bitchy and dictatorial, and sorrowful and oppressed. These modes applied to all characters except for Kit, making her incredibly incongruous with the rest of the characters. All actresses started to show rather rigid patterns of behaviour as the play went on, certain gestures, stances and postures. Rather rapidly, the performance lost any vigour and impact. Being minute and somewhat robotic in its repetitiveness, movement in general again made character interactions seem stagnant and much too similar.

I believe this invariant characterisation was not wholly down to the capabilities of the actresses but mainly down to the writing of the play itself. Characters are written very similarly in this text, again with the rather blatant exception of Kit. Character interactions are mostly born of preexisting tensions which only grow momentum until one character, having been lectured by the other for some time, outbursts, suppresses the other and leaves with a certain heavy yet hurt pride. I mentioned before that the speech of the chorus was very dissimilar stylistically to that of the characters, and this definitely translated itself into the performance. All actress — but most noticeably Lia and Srabani Sen (playing Isabelle), due mostly to the incessantly emotional and nervous nature of their characters — failed to find a feasible balance between realism and stylised representation or narration. It is a large jump to switch from still, robotic and staccato to realistic and fluid, and this jump should be subtler and better worked into the script.

It is not only dialogue but the content of the writing which becomes repetitive and hence, frankly, rather boring and shallow. Towards the middle of the play, the same themes (predominantly those of sexual abuse and spread secrets) start to become the only material that this play works with, and it does so in the same way over and over. There is an utter lack of depth in the material provided, despite the harrowing nature of what it alludes to or represents. The modes of expression, choral speech and monologues, become overused, samey and drab, and the repetition of particular thematic phrases (“people are talking about me/you” being one of these) adds to this sense of stasis and stagnancy. I know for sure that this sense of monotony was perceived by other audience members, with several visibly daydreaming, becoming restless, sighing or even falling asleep. I would be careful as to how the dramatic text expresses itself both in script and on stage and make sure that there is a sufficient and engaging variation of and depth to themes and their articulations.

On to the technical. Music was most off-putting in this performance, pairing soft and playful classical music with tragic content and leaking into scenes that could have vastly benefitted from some silence. This was a problem most particular to the latter part of the performance, where music was, presumably, utilised to add a sense of tragedy and emotion but, instead, simply subtracted from the work in its superfluity and stylistic incoherency. Lighting was rather the same. With the operator being quite loud, I was able to hear just how many cues there were, a ridiculous number for a performance of this length and size. What is more, these cues barely changed the overall lighting state and were just needless.

Props were kept at a minimum in this performance, the only props being the red letters, and I think this suited it well; this performance is so heavily movement-based that I feel props would subtract from the focus on voice and the body. The lack of period dress, where costume is concerned, also aided the style of the writing, being assembled adequately enough to evoke the sense of the Tudor period. The hair ribbons, however, I felt looked most unbefitting and messy, an odd accessory that gradually fell off of the performers’ heads as the performance went on. I cannot imagine what this was meant to achieve. Lastly, set. Again, a good choice to leave the set minimal, yet I felt that the drawn windows –– the only piece of set, besides the wooden bench –– were far too cartoonistic. That being said, conceptually, they offered plenty for the imagination. The bench, despite being very simple, added a sense of depth and architecture to the space. It was a good decision to use this sparingly, however, but perhaps it was a little too overused for moping, seated Kathryn.

Overall, this performance has quite a strong foundation, but it has yet to find uniqueness, variety and depth in its voice. Its few strengths are recycled over and over until they become its entirety, making for shallow content overall. Style is a big issue for this play, both for the writing and staging as for the pairing of physical and technical components. I would urge both writer Catherine Hiscock and director Alex Pearson to consider conceiving new ways to express the narrative, rather than relying on traditional theatrical storytelling techniques. The use of a chorus, for example: whilst I feel that this play definitely benefits from third-party narration, I think the use of a chorus specifically is not the best choice for this particular play. I think the decision to use a chorus was made without meticulous consideration of how style mode would be affected and was used for its storytelling aspect more than its poignancy or status as a theatrical device.

“A difficult play to engage with, due to its lack of variety, stylistic coherency, and depth.”

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