Playhouse Creatures. By April de Angelis. Directed by Jordan Best. Pigeonhole Theatre. The Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. Until April 9. theq.net.au.
For its debut production, Canberra's newly formed Pigeonhole Theatre has scored a stunning triumph with April De Angelis' Playhouse Creatures.
Directed with customary flair, sensitivity and imagination by Jordan Best and featuring a cast of Canberra's finest female actors, Playhouse Creatures recalls the time when women were first permitted to act upon the English stage by royal decree of Charles ll.
De Angelis transports her audience back to 1669 and the lives of four prominent actresses of the time, vanguards of a feminist movement that would not find its voice until more than 200 years later.
As a result of meeting Elizabeth Farley (Jenna Roberts), Nell Gwynn (Amy Dunham) cons her way into the theatre company of Mr Thomas Betterton through his wife, leading actress Mary Betterton (Karen Vickery), much to the chagrin of the haughty Anne Marshall (Emma Wood). They are attended by the down-to-earth Cockney woman, Doll Common (Liz Bradley), a wry-humoured commentator. Zoe Priest as a non-speaking dresser completes the all-female cast of characters.
It would be simplistic to regard De Angelis' skilfully woven narrative as merely a platform for feminist discourse on the struggles and exploitation of women as they strive to assert themselves as actors upon the previously male-only Restoration stage. De Angelis' feminist argument is indisputable and implicit within the text and the fates of her characters.
Best's production avoids didactic espousal, as does De Angelis. Playhouse Creatures is beautifully crafted. "The theatre is a profession of great heart and decorum," Betterton tells Gwynn.
Pigeonhole Theatre speaks from the heart and creates a performance of utmost decorum. There are moments of sheer magic, heightened by Best's evocative playing on the cello and Matthew Webster's brilliant accompanying musical composition.
The period is wonderfully captured in Christiane Nowak's set and Anne Kay's costume design. An excellent cast recreates the theatre of the time with exuberance and style. Dunham's joyous jig, Wood's furious outrage, Betterton's Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and the Hands of the Clock technique of emotive acting are theatrical highlights.
Roberts' portrayal of Farley's banishment tugs at the heart strings, while Bradley's comical Doll draws a poignant parallel in her description of the fate of a female bear at the bear pit on which the theatre now stands. Through all this, Best's direction lends the thought-provoking production clarity of purpose and theatrical delight.
The struggles that the brave actresses of the Restoration stage faced persist, but De Angelis and Pigeonhole Theatre offer hope for change and Canberra's shining new company promises a much needed professional opportunity for more women to be employed in the creation and performance of theatre, in honour of all those women who forged the way to bring their talent to the stage.