Taking my place in the audience ready to watch Playhouse Creatures, I didn’t know quite what to expect of a play I’d heard was “distinctly feminist”. The audience mem- ber next to me didn’t share any of my caution: “I love the way it’s using an all female cast, it’s so clever!” I nodded dumbly and sat back in my seat, waiting to be enlightened.
Playhouse Creatures, set in a theatre in 1669, follows the fortunes of four women as they try to forge a living in the constantly evolving world of the stage. As my neighbour had told me, the cast is all women. Although men are alluded to throughout as the invisible hand of control and oppression that holds back these ambitious young actresses, males never actually appear on stage. This concept works well, knitting the four women close together in a way that has the audience hoping they can come out the other end of the play unscathed. But, of course, things aren’t so simple – their precarious lives are shaped and slowly ruined by the men around them, and one is left with a feeling of innate helplessness that mirrors that of the characters we are watching. The clever translation of female struggle and oppression to seventeenth century London does not remove its relevance: through the well thought-out and provocative dialogue, the playwright, April de Angelis, makes sure everyone knows these are contemporary issues being discussed.
The wittiness and intricacies of de Angelis’ writing were not lost on the actors: with a particularly energetic performance by Gwenno Jones playing Nell Gwynn (that is, after you get over the strong, grating Welsh accent – yes, we know it’s authentic, but does it need to be so piercing?), the play is infused with energy throughout at points when it was in danger of falling flat. Special mention must also go to Amy Perkis playing Mrs Betterton. Her depiction of a loving wife long- ing for more freedom to follow her career brought a touch of tenderness to a world that was otherwise full of harshness, and gave another dimension to the play’s otherwise slightly straightforward character portrayal.
The sparseness of the set, consisting only of a table, chairs and a few other props, reflects this direct take on the play and on women’s rights in the theatre. Although the stark simplicity of the staging only helped to highlight the helpless plight of the characters as they fought against male oppression, I couldn’t help wondering if the play’s interpretation was also a little too simplistic. But then, what would I know? I went in knowing nothing of the plight of women in the theatre, having never found myself in that situation – and for that reason, I have to admit that I found it hard to judge this play. And its powerful, urgent message makes clear that these problems have not been solved yet: as Mrs Betterton says to one of her colleagues, “There is still much to do”. This play, and the ‘playhouse creatures’ that inhabit it, definitely have something important to tell us.