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 winning formula – interesting and original writing, pleasing to the eye, some truly moving moments and a beautifully clever and poignant ending”
Arrows and Traps Theatre offers more historical new writing with ‘Taro’, being performed hand in hand with ‘Gentleman Jack’. Their latest dramaturgic slant explores the radical lives of remarkable women whose stories deserve to be celebrated. ‘Taro’ tells of Gerta Pohorylle who breaks out of her Jewish background and defies gender roles when, in 1934, she moves from Leipzig to Paris to escape German anti-semitism and meets Endre Friedmann, a young Hungarian photographer. They form an exhilarating bond. He teaches her photography, she provides contacts through her job at Alliance Photo. They decide to improve their professional opportunities by obscuring their roots and creating the ambiguous name, Robert Capa (borrowed as it sounded similar to film director, Frank Capra and also Friedmann’s Budapest street nickname was “Cápa” which means “Shark” in Hungarian) under which they both work. Gerta changes her name to Gerda Taro, a combination of the icon Greta Garbo and the Japanese artist Tarō Okamoto, and eventually they travel to Spain to capture the atrocities of the civil war. There she is killed at the age of 26, becoming a pioneer of photojournalism as well as martyr for the socialist cause.
Writer and director, Ross McGregor, reflects their intertwining identities and the influence of cinema in their names as a film being made through the eyes of Taro. Accompanied by her favourite film star, she watches herself, commenting on and explaining her own story. The cast move dexterously round the stage forming and reforming as family, friends and colleagues, changing scenery and costumes but it is this meandering action which blurs rather than clarifies the mesh of people and events. On the few occasions where emotions rise, the tension is cut short by Garbo’s quips and we are unable to fully engage with the characters. Lucy Ioannou gives a sensitive performance as Gerda complementing Cornelia Baumann’s strong, spirited Gerta, in particular, the heartfelt outburst at her disillusion with Endre’s unreliable nature. Tom Hartill plays the volatile Friedmann, charming the audience with his openness and we enjoy a refreshingly grounded portrayal of Gerta’s friend Ruth, by Laurel Marks.
The lighting (Ben Jacobs) nurtures the space and atmosphere and there are other striking stylistic similarities with the company’s earlier production of ‘The White Rose’. With the incorporation of expressive movement, tableaux, background mime and the red coat standing out against the grey costumes… possibly a recurring motif… McGregor is establishing an artistic hallmark. For those less familiar with Capa’s work, to see some of his images (presumably protected by copyright) would have been impacting but there seemed to be an attempt to restructure one of the civil war photos. Maybe more, but if one is unlucky enough to have a side-facing seat, the view of the staging is notably restricted. The members of Arrows and Traps have generated a winning formula – interesting and original writing, pleasing to the eye, some truly moving moments and a beautifully clever and poignant ending.