The stunningly surreal His Duchess, written and directed by Elliot Douglas, premiered on the October 16th in the Barron Theatre. I went to see it on the Saturday night and in all honesty, it was the best play I’ve seen in my four years here at St Andrews.
You can always tell how well a show is doing if you listen closely during the intermission. The first act of His Duchess was relatively short, but the bizarreness of it left the audience at the edge of their seat during the intermission. All around me, people sat whispering excitedly and thinking up theories about the Duchess’s whereabouts, life and mysterious and rather curious personality. I even heard someone contemplate whether she’d been abducted by aliens, become a little bit eccentric and subsequently been returned back to earth. As the audience sat guessing, I couldn’t help but be enchanted with the plot itself. It would be an understatement to call the writing superb: it captured drama, poetry, comedy and the boundless nature of imagination into a single, eloquent piece of theatre. It also worked as an intriguing time capsule for the 19th century onwards, where references ranged from Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Ella Fitzgerald and Beyoncé.
It was the second act, however, that struck me the most. It brought along not only an impulsive change in tempo, but also the ‘big reveal’: the Duchess was actually in a psychiatric institution, looked after by the stern (and extremely hilarious) Mrs. Smith. Rosie Beech did an excellent job at capturing the malleability and sarcastic temperament of Mrs. Smith, but by virtue of the plot she was far more noticeable and dominant in the second act. In the first act however, her attention to detail was particularly remarkable; though the main spotlight was always on the Duchess, Rosie Beech never let herself lose her character, she would pick and prod at the dusty curtains in the background, pick up the Duchess’s letters and read them or have the most comical facial reactions to the ongoing events. She rendered her character so life-like and amusing that it was impossible not to relate to her, even though she was as close as this play had to a villain. Similarly, the stage presence of Matthew Lansdel as Mr. Brown, was only fully opened up in the second act, but the entire fluidity of the last scenes of the play seemed hinged upon his ability to react and relate to the Duchess (as a character and an actor), which he did in equal measure.
Alice Wilkinson, who played the Duchess, deserves special mention for her incredible performance and remarkable stage presence. She was energetic from the onset, using the set to her advantage and changing from one position in one place, to a completely different one elsewhere. Her body language was fluid in portraying the anxiety and chaos of her character. She would move gracefully through the audience delivering her lines, a sort of omnipotent presence, making sure that everyone was aware of her stature and superiority. The most impressive part was her ability to slip in and out of sanity, per se, and the way in which that made the show all the more suspenseful. She never strayed too far from responding to what was going on, but not too close to make it seem like the Duchess was normal after all.
For a production and cast team this small, the set, music and costume design maintained the high expectations for detail that had been set by the actors and writer. The opening scene featured an array of 1920s themed knick knacks, with a few oddities here and there, not to mention a couple of wine bottles shipwrecked on the floor. The piano was a great addition, used exactly as it is in real life – to play around with during moments of anxiety or tension. The record player helped to invite surreal dancing and singing, to blur the line between fantasy and truth even more. The costumes were appropriately vintage for the piece, and the changes done for the Duchess for the second act worked well to underline her miserable reality.
The story of the Duchess hit home for many of the audience members and left us all feeling a little stricken and most definitely entertained. It would do the play justice to summarise it in its own words, for that was its biggest asset alongside the marvelous casting and set design. After all, “all we have is our perceptions, the facts from which we make our fictions”.