Underbelly Bristo Square (Dairy), Edinburgh
It’s 1660, Charles II has claimed the throne and, after eighteen long years of bans and closures, the theatres of London are finally open again – but something is different. This time, women are allowed on stage. Written and directed by Andrew Pearson-Wright, Long Lane Theatre Company’s The Actress focuses on the first of these new performers, highlighting the issues they faced and their determination to succeed.
Theatre was still tightly governed, and only two royal patents were issued: one to Sir Thomas Killigrew (Andrew Loudon), the other to his competitor, Sir William Davenant. This story, however, focuses on two women who present themselves to Killigrew, Anne Marshall (Charlotte Price) and Margaret Hughes (Eva Pearson-Wright), both vying for the accolade of being the first woman on the English stage.
They couldn’t be more different. While Anne is only eighteen years old, an intellectual, bookish kind of girl, Margaret is thirty and a woman of the world, a courtesan, who has travelled to Paris and Amsterdam, and is mistress to a prince. Pearson-Wright’s well-crafted script presents a complex, nuanced relationship: the two are competitors but also reluctant allies, aware that their gender both separates and binds them. Anne helps Margaret towards a deeper understanding of Shakespeare, while Margaret pushes Anne to be more assertive. They’re both fighting a losing battle to be taken seriously – “Men have to want to fuck her!” says the wonderfully boorish theatre patron, Charles Sedley (Matthew Hebden) – but at least they’re not being ignored, unlike Anne’s illiterate friend (Hattie Chapman), who’s working backstage all hours, waiting in the wings…
There’s a lot to admire here. The writing is strong: the play is pacy and the storyline is clear and engaging. The characterisation is also assured, and Price in particular stands out, imbuing Marshall with a disquieting intensity. The small stage is well-utilised and never feels cluttered, even when there are five actors almost filling it; the movement is dynamic and everything flows well.
I’m a little uncomfortable with the dressing room scenes, however. It’s a fascinating (and disturbing) period detail: apparently, men could pay to sit backstage and watch the actresses undress. These are important moments, and certainly need to be included in the play, but I don’t know why the women need to actually be topless; it feels as exploitative as the sleaze it’s supposed to be skewering. This level of realism doesn’t sit well in a production where moustaches on hand-held sticks are employed to differentiate between male roles.
That aside, The Actress is an interesting and compelling play, shedding light on an important piece of theatre history.