By Lisa Font
‘Intellectual and carnal satisfaction’ is what Sophie Wright, director of First Theatre Company’s The Bloody Chamber, believes the play will offer to its audiences. In my opinion, this statement is worthy of Angela Carter herself.
The Bloody Chamber, Carter’s revision of the Bluebeard myth, is infamous for its controversial exploration of the marriage of a young girl to the older, debauched Marquis. Certainly fans of Carter will not be disappointed by Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of her iconic fairy tale; as Lucy Knight, who plays the mother and Countess in the play, admits ‘[Lavery] doesn’t really take any prisoners, and obviously Carter doesn’t.’ She continued ‘so the combination of the two is pretty…’ at which point she trailed off. I am sure that after seeing the play, audience members could easily fill in the blank themselves.
During the preview the word ‘raunchy’ was used multiple times, and perhaps it is significant in terms of the limits of female sexuality that the play is attempting to push against. As Charlotte Phipps, who plays Jean Ives, notes ‘it is so sexually explicit and so hard-core feminist, but I think it’s a great play to put on and it’s very relevant.’ Even the actors have admitted to a lot of giggling during rehearsals because the language is so … well … ‘raunchy.’ When I spoke to the cast about the pornographic language used in the play, and their giggling in response, Knight made the interesting point that ‘even that reaction makes you think why? Why can’t we talk about sex? Why can’t we be really confident in our sexuality? And it makes you think about the way that women are oppressed and are encouraged to keep their sexuality behind doors to a certain extent. So that’s been really interesting, and obviously to get out there, [on stage], and be really confident saying those things.’
Undoubtedly, deciding to perform this play is a brave choice because of all the acting challenges that it presents. Carter’s very two-dimensional characters present notable challenges for the actors, but particularly for Phipps and Shona Graham, who plays the Girl. Phipps admitted that ‘it is difficult when it’s not a fully formed character on the page because then you have to really consider their motivations. In terms of Jean Ives, you have to be careful because he is supposed to be the antithesis of the Marquis and have that feminine balance, even in the book.’
In my opinion, what elevates this play is the decision to cast Jean Ives as gender blind; Wright ‘intentionally wanted Jean Ives as a girl’ for the interesting comparison between him/her and the Marquis that it raises. This casting definitely adds to the subversive and non-traditional quality of the play. As Carter was intent on exploring the traditional fairy tale plotlines – with their damsels, princes and happily-ever-afters – I have to agree with Wright that ‘there’s something really satisfying about the girl not being satisfied by the man, but finding love and comfort in another woman.’
The Girl is another character who has presented challenges in terms of acting – challenges which were impressively overcome as I watched rehearsals of a scene where present day merged seamlessly into retrospective monologue. These flashbacks, as Wright highlights, ‘get round the first person narration. But it’s framed as her retelling it.’ The decision to completely frame the events with the Marquis within the play’s present offers an appropriate, fairytale-esque symmetry to the whole piece. It will hopefully also help the audience’s relationship with the Girl, and her flashbacks, which Wright describes as becoming ‘trickier later in the play, because obviously she knows what happened but in the moment she is definitely more complicit than I think she lets on.’ The girl’s ‘implicit complicitness’ to the overt way in which she is objectified and seduced by the Marquis, like the three dead wives before her, is what Wright believes Shona Graham has found most challenging in her performance as the girl; it is something that is not comfortable to act, and I doubt that audience members will find it comfortable to watch either.
However, some of the cast have thoroughly enjoyed the controversial sexuality of their characters. Kate Anderson, who plays the housekeeper and Muse, one of the Marquis’ three dead wives who appear as ghosts later on in the play, laughingly admitted that ‘there’s something quite nice in the reckless sexual abandon that we get to go for as the wives; although it’s kind of grotesque, there’s something quite exhilarating.’
This dual repulsion and attraction is something that the audience can expect in Gothic abundance on the night; elements which will make it intentionally difficult to form any coherent moral judgement on the characters. There is a reason why Sophie Wright had to put ‘parental guidance advised’ on the bottom of the posters for the play. And if that is not enough to pique your interest, to quote Lucy Knight, ‘we’re wearing lingerie aren’t we?’
‘The Bloody Chamber’ will be performed in Crook Hall and Gardens from Tuesday, 21st February until Thursday 23rd February at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Sophie Wright