THE ACTRESS at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“Fans of theatre history, and of the Restoration stage, will enjoy this story, even if it doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the times”
The Long Lane Theatre Company presents The Actress as part of a three play offering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. The Actress is set in 1660, just as the theatres are reopening in London thanks to the restoration of Charles Stuart as King of England. 1660 marks a watershed year in English history, but for theatre buffs it’s particularly important because it introduces a new kind of theatre in England. 1660 also marks the first time actresses appear on a London stage. Andrew Pearson-Wright, playwright and director, focuses not only on this latter historic event in The Actress, but on the rivalries between women competing to be that first actress. Pearson-Wright has clearly done a lot of research. The women he portrays, Margaret (Peg) Hughes, and her lesser known rival, Anne Marshall, are both scheming for the honour of being the first actress on the London stage.
Presented on a bare bones set in an imposing hall belonging to the University of Edinburgh, The Actress is rather overwhelmed by its surroundings. As is the story in this play. In focusing on the rivalry between actresses, Pearson-Wright leaves out some important details about the Restoration stage. Intriguing questions get left unanswered. Why is 1660 the time that women finally appear on English stages? And why would they want the job? Especially as it seems to be such an unpleasant occupation. According to Hughes’ patron Charles Sedley at any rate, the job of an actress, it seems, is more about being a sex worker, than being an artist. In The Actress, Peg Hughes is portrayed as a courtesan, used to this life. She’s traveled a bit in Europe, and seen women act on stage in France. She’s the sophisticate. Hughes’ rival Anne Marshall is the naïve young ingenue. Hughes, worried about losing her rich patrons as she ages, is looking for another source of income. She thinks acting might provide it. Marshall, in contrast, is presented as a young woman in love with Shakespeare’s plays, and determined to grace the world with her interpretation of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.
The Actress presents a romantic idea of acting, more modern than Restoration. Modern audiences may relish the idea of two actresses competing for the honour of portraying Desdemona on stage for the first time, but audiences in 1660 wanted the witty, sexy dramas being written by the courtiers who surrounded Charles II, of whom Sedley was one. Shakespeare was already too old fashioned. There was a lot going on in this period of British theatre, and The Actress would be a deeper, more intriguing drama if more detail was provided.
For all the weaknesses of the script, however, there are some good performances in this show. Charlotte Price as Anne Marshall, and Eve Pearson-Wright as Peg Hughes, take centre stage and hold the attention. That’s quite a feat when the men alongside them (Andrew Loudon and Matthew Hebden) are chewing the scenery in an attempt to take over. Hattie Chapman also puts in a solid performance as Nell, a young woman who will do anything to be part of the theatre. If she’s who we think she is, (and the script never makes this clear) Nell will end up being a far more famous actress than Hughes or Marshall.
Fans of theatre history, and of the Restoration stage, will enjoy this story, even if it doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the times. The Actress has more than its fair share of anachronisms. For those who do enjoy them, however, there is the added bonus of hearing Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” being played on the lute as the show begins. Nice!
Reviewed 7th August 2022
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Venus Raven
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