Before I Am Lost is Beatrice Vincent’s one woman show about the Imagist poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, or H.D, as she is better known. This play about H.D’s life and art is currently playing at the Etcetera Theatre at the Oxford Arms in Camden Town, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. In Vincent’s take on H.D’s life, we meet the writer at a particularly stressful point in her life — she is pregnant, she is married, but the child she is carrying is not her husband’s. Neither her lover nor her husband wish to claim responsibility, and H.D herself is terrified that she may not survive this pregnancy. Before I Am Lost is a direct address to H.D’s unborn child — saying all the things that are on her mind in case she does not live to say them in person. It’s an attention getting situation.
The historical Hilda Doolittle was a charismatic bisexual female artist who formed powerful relationships with both men and women, some platonic, some not. She moved in artistic circles that included Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and D.H Lawrence. Born in the United States, she moved to London as a young adult and lived in Europe for most of the remainder of her life. She did nearly die while giving birth to her second and only surviving child, but this was due to the influenza pandemic of 1918, and not complications of pregnancy or childbirth. She was a pioneer in many ways, and navigated life and art on her own terms, often despite a disapproving or appropriating male gaze.
Before I Am Lost chooses to foreground H.D’s pregnancy and her more famous male companions. This focus does H.D no favours. With this approach, the script reduces her to a woman experiencing what so many women have experienced, and is distracting in its historical inaccuracies. It makes the briefest of references to H.D’s female lover Bryher but without telling us much about her. The play does refer often to the Greek myths that predominate in H.D’s art, but they are overwhelmingly references to male gods and heroes, even if the characterisation of H.D does take on these mythic figures and cast herself in their moulds. Beatrice Vincent is a sympathetic performer, but as a writer, she has chosen a rather thin vein to mine when such riches of artistic and biographical material are available. Instead, the audience’s attention is at risk of drifting during the performance focusing on things like a lack of an American accent in Vincent’s portrayal of H.D., for example.
Before I Am Lost has the potential to be something noteworthy but this script could use more research, and work with a skilled dramaturg, to get there. H.D’s story, as a writer, a feminist, and as a pioneer of LGBT rights, deserves a memorable telling.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Brendan Walker
Before I Am Lost
Etcetera Theatre until 20th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019
“a musical with a profound heart, and more than a touch of a morality tale”
Queen of the Mist is an ironic meditation on a whole range of recognisable American characters, including unscrupulous managers, small minded small town citizens, a radical Temperance campaigner — and even the assassin of an American president. In Michael John LaChiusa’s musical, they all get caught up in the story of one highly unusual sixty-three year old woman striving for immortality — and enough money to live out the end of her days. For protagonist Anna Edson Taylor, the problem is how to achieve this when life has you so beaten, the only route left to you is to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Based on a true story, we first meet Anna drifting from small upstate New York towns to small midwestern cities. All she meets is a hard nosed scepticism and a grasping at dollars — a wasteland for a woman who proclaims throughout Queen of the Mist that “There is a Greatness in Me.” Her longing for significance is dismissed by those who see Anna’s quest for consequence as that of an unscrupulous huckster and “Queen of fools.” There is more than a little truth to this, but in the words and music of LaChiusa, Anna’s search transcends the hardscrabble existence of a self proclaimed “quintessential hero”. We see instead, an intelligent woman who takes on the forces of nature “with science”, and wins. With such a barnstorming ending to the first half as Anna goes over the Niagara Falls, where can Queen of the Mist possibly go in the second?
Anna’s story falters in the second half, and this is hardly surprising. Anna’s life falters as well. As the first person to survive a trip over the Falls, we see her life turn into a series of lecture tours that all fail because of Anna’s inability to describe “what it was like”. There is conscious irony at work here, in giving Anna the posthumous fame she so desperately sought in life. Michael John LaChuisa once again creates a challenging work laden with memorable music and big ideas.
This revival of Queen of the Mist at the Charing Cross Theatre is noteworthy in several respects. With the audience seated both in front and behind the stage, set designer Tara Usher has produced a flexible space that teases with several delightful surprises as Anna’s story proceeds, amply supported by lighting designer Beth Gupwell. But it is director Dom O’Hanlon who deserves special mention for making the most of this challenging space. It is rare that one sees such confident, ingenious work. His direction highlights the talents of the cast, particularly Trudi Camilleri, playing Anna, and Will Arundell, who plays Anna’s first manager, Frank Russell. The musical direction of Connor Fogel is also confident, and with his band, supports the singing talents of all the cast to good effect.
Queen of the Mist is not a light hearted musical, but it is a musical with a profound heart, and more than a touch of a morality tale. For how different, really, is our contemporary world, with its own parade of hucksters and money grabbers? Anna Taylor Edson’s story is a perfect example of restless people in search of distinction, deserved or not. But Queen of the Mist is ultimately a musical about hope and resurrection, and inspirational in its own unique way.