Trafalgar Studio 2, London SW1
Opened 13 January, 2010

Linda Marlowe is a doyenne of solo shows, and her blend of femaleness (as opposed to mimsy “femininity”) and indomitability makes her a fine match for a stage version of Carol Ann Duffy’s 1999 poetry collection which re-evaluates episodes from history and myth. Some of Duffy’s narrators are principal protagonists themselves (Delilah, Salome or Myra Hindley in “The Devil’s Wife”, the group of poems which provide the climax to the 70-minute presentation), some the imaginary or unregarded wives of principal figures (Mrs Freud with her catalogue of penile euphemisms, or the deliciously blasé Mrs Faust), some are gender-bent from the conventional figures as with Queen Herod or the Kray Sisters.
The production is a model of thoughtful economy. The set consists of a laundry basket, airer and table, placing Woman stereotypically amid domestic drudgery until... a snatch of music, a video-projected title, a garment grabbed from one location or another and Marlowe has transformed herself into the next figure. (At one point the captions comment upon the set itself, as the caption for “Mrs Tiresias” shows a washing line from which two bra-and-panty sets dangle.) An overcoat and a stoop suffice for Mrs Quasimodo, an amulet and a flower in her hair for Queen Kong.
Some of the devices in Marlowe’s arsenal are familiar: Delilah speaks with the voice she has used for many a Steven Berkoff prole. Occasionally she over-emphasises: when Circe speaks of having swinish men “under my thumb”, she presses the digit down on the table. But woe betide anyone who suggests that at almost 70 years of age she might consider more decorous characterisations than the flying legs and “presented” rump of Queen Kong. Marlowe’s own personality is an integral component of the show, even though not a word of its text is her own. There is wit in the re-sequencing of Duffy’s poems, such as working up to a peak of Mrs Beast’s dominatrix declarations and the complexities of Hindley, but also in the deflation of “Queen Kong” by following it with the single sardonic stanza of “Mrs Darwin”; one can relish, too, subtle touches such as giving Eurydice an Australian accent… because Orpheus (nearly) brings her from down under, get it? The audience at the performance I saw included a number of set-text students, who clearly appreciated Marlowe’s bringing Duffy’s words to life.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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