The Unnatural Tragedy
White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 5th July 2018
“Spanning sobriety, wit, tension and fatality, this ‘Unnatural Tragedy’ entertains the mind and the heart.”
In the first performance since it was written 360 years ago, ‘The Unnatural Tragedy’ plunges straight into the 21st century with a compelling production which reveals the work of a female writer who was years ahead of her time. Prolific in quantity and scope, Margaret Cavendish, sometimes nicknamed Mad Madge due to her ‘outlandish’ ideas and opinions, wrote everything from plays and poetry to philosophy and science. In this, one of fourteen plays, three storylines run parallel, ostensibly separate though related in themes, predominantly the concept of nature. The main plot tells of Frere’s obsessive sexual attraction for his married sister, Soeur, when he returns after many years away at university, and his attempt to seduce her. Secondly, and not dissimilar to a Greek chorus, are scenes of the ‘sociable virgins’ – modernised as teenage schoolgirls – and their discussions on women’s values and roles, marriage, classical poetry and history. A third tale is that of rich and irascible Malateste who berates his gentle wife, Madame Bonit. When she dies he finds a new wife among the sociable virgins and the tables are turned.
Director, Graham Watts, skilfully interlocks the three scenarios, with slick pacing and dramatic balance, engaging the audience in each story. The open, two-sided stage area with a simple yet effective set design (Alys Whitehead) allows the numerous entrances and exits to flow and the lighting (Paola Capuano) and sound (Matthew Iles) add colour and detail.
Watts uses the disjointed nature of short interjecting scenes to build up tension and anticipation as the characters and situations develop. Jack Ayres and Alice Welby give strong, nuanced portrayals as the brother and sister. Frere’s repeated advances become more intense and his frustration grows frenzied; Soeur becomes trapped by his arguments, trying to convince him of his sinful thoughts as he rationalises his incestuous desires by explaining what he perceives as ‘natural’. The rise and fall of Malateste’s (Alan Booty) life is clearly drawn with a touching performance by Alison Mead as Madame Bonit who preserves her integrity in spite of her husband’s insults, and the domineering second wife, played by Madeleine Hutchins. Mademoiselle Amor, (Phebe Alys), is steadily crushed by unrequited love for Frere until, in a heartfelt moment of desperation, she collapses into the comfort of her father’s (James Sanderson) arms. Meanwhile, the sociable virgins, (including Eleanor Nawal and Lily Donovan), debate and deliberate with spirit and petulance, testing the patience of their tutor (Norma Dixit).
The striking feature of this play is its relevance today, stressing Cavendish’s radical thinking in creating voluble women characters who address conventional attitudes to matrimony, love and nature. Accomplished acting all round, with several of the cast making debut appearances, and sensitive, intelligent direction bring it alive with nuance and fluidity, tying together the threads of narrative, comment and emotions. Spanning sobriety, wit, tension and fatality, this ‘Unnatural Tragedy’ entertains the mind and the heart.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Alys Whitehead
The Unnatural Tragedy
White Bear Theatre until 21st July
Previously reviewed at this venue