Staged as part of the King’s Head Theatre’s Who Runs the World? season championing female playwrights, Voices from the Deep has the misfortune of landing on the hottest bank holiday Monday since records began. Despite the sweltering climate, Paperclip Theatre’s all female cast captivatingly channel the voices of women from male-penned history books both “distinguished” and “downtrodden”.
The play is comprised is of a series of nine short stories, the first of these being a fictional encounter between the redheaded cousins, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth enters as the young princess, cherry-picking Shakespearean phrases and confessing her vulnerability as a young woman in a patriarchal state. “Shall I compare thee to thy sister?” asks Mary, to which Elizabeth concludes that, “Comparisons are odious… they fuck you up”. There is an interesting blending of stern political critique with queer aesthetics and comedy, as Mary laments the historic erasure of women from the literary canon one minute, with a Drag Race interlude the next minute as the cousins bust-out a lip sync battle to Garbage’s ‘Stupid Girl’. “Do you think you’re non-binary?” Mary asks the Virgin Queen, to which she responds, “I think it’s hard to say but I’m sure I’d have related to the concept”, and later “I think I might have been the first drag queen in history.” Whilst it is fundamentally important that queer narratives are afforded better, more diverse representation, one does wonder whether there is any significance in reading these historical figures with such a lens, and to what purpose?
The narrative follows a loose historically chronological tour which carries the play through to colonised India and a sleazy British Imperial physician who takes advantage of older women in unhappy marriages, believing that “the cause of their heat’s a deep, deep longing for some proper meat”. Both doctor and the patient enact an outstandingly hilarious exchange with fiendishly funny comic-timing and diction.
The tone changes as we are introduced to the half-French half-Algerian neglected child of the Algerian Genocide, barricaded in her ancestral home. She performs a rousing monologue which makes for a heavy portrayal of lost innocence in sharp contrast to the previous episode. It’s sadly not helped by the cloying humidity of the evening, although it definitely contributes towards a certain ambience. We meet Christina Rosetti and Cleopatra in passing, as they interject between shorts. Their interventions feel somewhat clipped with scope for more complex character development.
The final instalment introduces us to two love-struck girls, reminiscent of Rosetti’s Goblin Market duo. The girls run from the encroaching forces of a Cockney heteronormative vicar-goddess before being eventually cornered and professing their love for each other. The vicar-goddess ultimately surrenders, rolls her eyes and barks to her PA “Jane babe, we need to diversify” in a thematically summative final line.
Whilst the play’s attempts to reinvigorate Shakespearean verse might not be to everyone’s tastes, there are moments of true comic pleasure between serious moments of political interrogation.
Voices from the Deep played at the King’s Head Theatre until 7 May
Photo: King’s Head Theatre