And So Forth presents Damsel/Wife/Witch performed at the Caroline Gardens chapel in London. This company’s vision is to create interdisciplinary art and the setting is perfect for that. When I stepped into the abandoned chapel I thought what a wonderful setting, and what potential this had to be special. Unfortunately the surroundings do not compare to the play.
Damsel/Wife/Witch is the first production for the emerging new company, and the energy with which the artistic and producing team surround the play is impressive. Others and I were asked to write down our thoughts on what the key words “damsel”, “wife” and “witch” mean; I was told by Laura Attridge (director/writer) that this was so they could gauge where the audiences’ heads were in relation to those words before the production. A nice and interesting idea for such a small production – and why not, it did make me feel a little involved.
The setting is picturesque – an abandoned chapel with air flowing through the stained glass windows and eerie acoustics – and I had high hopes for the production. The play opens with a fairytale-themed verse from mezzo-soprano Katie Coventry. Coventry has a beautiful voice and performs the verses interjected throughout the play with conviction and intrigue. However, the songs are interjected not interwoven. In the collaborative process they are a surreal element, but are the one element that suits the surroundings the most. They are a unique aspect to be used by And So Forth company that they should embrace and utilise more.
After the first introduction of an operetta sung verse, the play moves into a scene where a young woman has inherited an old house. Writers Attridge and Richard Walls introduce us to a modern young couple in their 20s but the dialogue has the clipped, wooden quality of a 1920s drama. If this company decided to change the costume to 1920s as well then the entire script would work. But it seems bizarre when these self-confessing epiphanies are being proclaimed by men and women from 2015 dressed in jeans. The obviousness of the text also strips away any integrity of the characters. I really had to ask myself how old the couple are meant to be – they talk to each other like they are 55 and know everything about their souls and can articulate it! The lack of subtext is insulting; they spell everything out, including why a character is feeling a particular way. For example, when a character actually says “my childhood was like….”, and explains why this childhood has made them the man they are, it’s too unbelievable. Another example of this is “let’s talk about that room you avoided”: they then proceed to talk about the room and its impact. The bulk of the dialogue contains a huge amount of exposition that, when performed live, is said for poetic effect and is entirely superfluous.
The acting feels hammy and wooden, as the actors are trapped between overwritten poetic dialogue and having to narrate like a children’s storyteller. They gasp and shake, demonstrating their emotions instead of believing in them. The story continues to dart between the main bulk of the dialogue to scenes set in a fairytale, but the acting style doesn’t change. I found myself believing more in the fairytale scenes than the contemporary scenes, because the fake quality of the dialogue works in a fairytale.
On a good note, yet at albeit obvious points, the dialogue is underscored by the live pianist Claire Harris, and the music composed by Lewis Murphy is elegant, original and suits the atmosphere.
In And So Forth’s programme introduction they state they call the audience to answer no questions – well there is no need, as they had answered them all for me. This piece meaning to explore the roles of a damsel, witch and wife comes across as aggressive. It states that women are always afraid and always looking over their shoulder for that big bad wolf, and worst of all that subconsciously women may want it. The line “a woman is never satisfied, a man is always wanting” makes both sexes look hopelessly weak. Worst of all there is a moment in the play when the wolf/man is about the rape ‘Her’ and she starts laughing, then continues into a monologue about how “we [women] are always afraid”. I found this insulting: whether or not this piece was meant to provoke this type of outrage to cause discussion, I highly doubt, but it did so.
It’s not easy to create new writing and that is why I favour seeing this genre above all else. I fully support new emerging companies, but with the quality of work being so high out there, this company needs to radically rethink and watch other emerging companies, and then hold their work honestly up to the light of others. Setting this play in such a beautiful place does not save this production that has been pieced together by ideas. It’s a case of too many cooks with no-one brave enough to say to each other that this doesn’t work.
Damsel/Wife/Witch is playing at the Caroline Gardens Chapel until 18 September. For more information and tickets see And So Forth Productions website. Photo: And So Forth Productions.