Showing posts with label Greater Manchester Fringe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greater Manchester Fringe. Show all posts

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World (Greater Manchester Fringe)

Sunday 9 July 2017
Hope Mill Theatre, Pollard Street

On Sunday, I was at a performance of the verbosely titled The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, one of the shows being staged this year for the Greater Manchester Fringe. If that grand title itself doesn’t intrigue you, then I should tell you that this is a theatre production that is performed in complete darkness.


I must admit, I was rather excited when I saw this show was being staged at the Fringe. Forgive the self-promotion, but you may have seen that my edited collection She-Wolf has just come out in paperback from Manchester University Press. In the book, there’s a chapter by Australian artist and writer Jazmina Cininas entitled ‘Fur Girls and Wolf Women: Fur, Hair and Subversive Female Lycanthropy’, which discusses the cultural history of hairy women. Julia Pastrana is one of the historical women Cininas writes about, along with the sixteenth-century Gonsalus sisters and nineteenth-century Krao Farini. Having edited Cininas’s work, I’ve become familiar with Julia Pastrana’s story from an academic perspective – so the fact that the play was being performed at the same time as She-Wolf’s paperback was being launched was a wonderful twist of fate.

By way of background, Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican woman, born with hypertrichosis terminalis (abnormal hair growth) and other genetic conditions. Her nose, lips and gums were unusually large and thick, and her face and body were covered in hair. At some point in her early life, Pastrana was sold and taken to the United States to perform in a travelling show. She was billed as a ‘Bear Woman’ and ‘The Ugliest Woman on Earth’, and she was toured around North America. There she met Theodore Lent, who took over her management and exhibited her around Europe and America. In 1854, Lent and Pastrana married. Her fame began to increase, and she was the subject of scientific studies as well as freakshow entertainment. One nineteenth-century commentator, George O’Dell, concluded that Pastrana was ‘semi-human’, a cross between a woman and an orangutan.

In 1860, Pastrana gave birth to a son, who inherited some of her genetic conditions. The child died within three days, and Pastrana herself died shortly afterwards from post-partum complications. Lent had the bodies of his wife and child embalmed, and continued to exhibit them until his own death in 1884. He also remarried, wedding a hirsute German woman who was exhibited under the name Zenora Pastrana (and who, he falsely claimed, was Julia’s sister).


The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana was written by Shaun Prendergast, and was first performed in 1998. It’s an hour-long one-act play performed in complete darkness by a cast of five or six. It’s an unusual and immersive experience, with Pastrana’s story unfolding through short vignettes (it’s hard to call them ‘scenes’, given the way the play is staged) that chart her sale, performances, marriage, childbirth, death and post-mortem ‘career’. We begin with carnival grinders announcing their attractions: ‘limbless wonder’, ‘fish boy’, etc. Despite the small cast, the hustle and bustle surrounds the audience, with voices seeming to come from all sides.

With words based on historical descriptions of her act, Julia Pastrana cuts through the noise to introduce herself. In a sweet and lyrical voice, she describes the deformity of her facial features, before explaining that, despite this, her figure is ‘neat’ and her mind sharp. And then, at the instigation of a baying audience, she begins to sing – and at that moment it becomes impossible to imagine her as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’.

And that’s part of the reason for the show’s ‘gimmick’. The True History is a play that must be performed in complete darkness. The lack of a visual experience is not simply a trick or an experiment (and it’s not just that reconstructing Pastrana’s features would be too complicated): it’s vital to our understanding of the characters that we don't descend into gawping at ‘ugliness’. This is the story of a woman who lived her life as an exhibit – her whole career revolved around her being a spectacle, a thing to be looked at. By the time we reach the end of the story, the darkness takes on a further layer of heart-breaking significance (but you’ll need to see the show to fully understand that aspect).

The story that unfolds is cruel in places, unsettling in others, and yet imbued with a sweetness and sympathy (for Pastrana but also, in places, for Lent). It pulls no punches, and there were some moments when I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and ironically voyeuristic. This is not a story with a happy ending, and at the show’s powerful climax I was very pleased that it was performed in darkness, as that meant no one could see me crying.

Prendergast’s writing is excellent here. Although the play does deviate a little from the ‘true history’ – it is Lent who purchases Pastrana in Mexico, there’s no mention of any previous ‘owner’, and reference to Lent’s later marriage is omitted – this makes sense in terms of the limitations of a one-act play. The interactions between Lent and Pastrana beautifully capture the complex nature of their relationship, with Lent moving between money-hungry showman and loving husband, sometimes within the space of a few sentences. And Pastrana is sweetly naïve, beautifully melancholy, and knowingly complicit by turns.

Oddly, this performance didn’t have a programme or cast list available. I presume that, in the spirit of Theodore Lent, Watershed Productions didn’t want to run the risk of anyone spotting their ‘star turns’ out in the real world and ruining the illusion. But as the performances were so impressive, I took the liberty of checking out the show’s Twitter account to find out whose voices I’d been hearing.

Julia Pastrana was played wonderfully by Karina Jones, who captured the prettiness and fragility of ‘the ugliest woman in the world’ in both speech and song. Lent’s brash showmanship was brought to life by Matt Concannon – who did a great job of delivering Lent’s more unsettling (downright disturbing, by the end) lines in a way that made it just about possible to pity him. The rest of the cast – Ruby Ablett, Richard Innocent, Jonathan Blaydon and Colleen Prendergast (who also directed) – took the other roles, filling the auditorium with characters, crowds and sound effects (and… did I imagine it?... smells?) to the extent that it was easy to forget their small number. Although health and safety requirements meant that we had the mechanisms of performance revealed to us before the show started, having voices suddenly ringing out from all sides was still a surprise.

As well as the cast list, there was something else missing from this performance. The play was performed as written in 1998, and so Pastrana’s story ended – so painfully – at the point it had reached that year. But there is a postscript (easily found on Wikipedia, but I don’t want to spoil the play’s ending here), which wasn’t mentioned at any point during the performance. I don’t think this is a criticism, though, as inserting the final ‘ending’ of the story may well have weakened the punch of the climax. Pastrana’s story is one of cruelty and exploitation, and an attempt to tack on a redeeming feature (albeit one based in fact) would have detracted from this.

The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World is a fantastic piece of theatre. Stunning, disturbing and moving – I think it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: The Marriage of Kim K (Greater Manchester Fringe)

Monday 3 July 2017
53two, Albion Street



On Monday, I was at the Manchester launch night of The Marriage of Kim K, one of the (many) shows being staged this year for the Greater Manchester Fringe. I’d been promised that the show would be the ‘Kim Kardashian opera’ I’d been waiting for – or the ‘Mozart musical’ I’d been waiting for… at the same time. I didn’t know I’d been waiting for either of those things, so I was intrigued.

Written by Leo Mercer and Stephen Hyde (who write together as leoe&hyde), the show takes as its starting point Kim Kardashian’s ill-fated 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries in 2011. Sort of. Kim and Kris’s car crash of a marriage is played out (stage right) through numbers that run the standard musical gamut from comic to heartfelt to tragic. But it’s not too long before we’re introduced to another couple – the Count and Countess from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – who perform their marital dissatisfaction in a series of operatic excerpts (and interpretations) stage left.

The juxtaposition of Kim/Kris and the Count/Countess is the hook that sells the show, but in truth it’s the centre stage relationship that really holds the play together. There is a third marriage on stage, that of Amelia and Stephen, a couple drifting apart as life pulls them in different directions. Stephen is a playwright, determined to produce something of ‘beauty’ (like a Mozart opera), despite facing constant rejections. Amelia has just a new job, and combats the stress of work by watching reality TV. Amelia wants to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians; Stephen puts on a DVD of The Marriage of Figaro.

As Stephen and Amelia fight over the remote control, and bicker about their (seemingly) conflicting priorities, we cut between scenes of Kim and Kris (when Amelia chooses the channel) and the Count and Countess (when Stephen gets the upper hand). All the while, Amelia and Stephen keep up an impressive lyrical performance that is one part chorus, one part counterpoint to their televisual counterparts. As we move faster and faster between the Kardashian and Mozart songs, the tribulations of the three couples begin to merge, building up to finale that is both satisfying and heart-warming.

In lesser hands, this conceit could have been a gimmick. But for all its quirky premise, there’s something quite subtle and ‘real’ about The Marriage of Kim K. The writers cleverly avoid forcing comparisons between the marital discord of Kim/Kris, Amelia/Stephen and the Count/Countess. These are three different couples – existing in different times and media – and the problems they are dealing with have different causes and resolutions. Instead, the audience see parallels not analogies, being reminded (with some humour) that there are similarities even within a sea of differences.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sung-through musical (or an opera buffa, depending on which way you look at it), so it really puts its performers through their paces. Fortunately, the cast were more than up to the task, and all six of the performances were brilliant.

Photocredit: www.toriabrightside.com

Emily Burnett was vocally impressive as the Countess Rosina, capturing both the fragile sadness and the stubborn anger of the character. She was paired with Nathan Bellis, who was fantastic as the Count. I enjoyed the way that, while the Marriage of Figaro songs were initially performed in Italian, Burnett and Bellis seamlessly switched to singing in English when Amelia ‘turned the subtitles on’. This wasn’t just a language change either – the pair subtly altered their performance of the scenes to make the dynamics of their exchanges more accessible to audiences less familiar with operatic style (and to draw out some of those parallels with the other couples on stage).

James Edge played Kris Humphries, and his performance was a lot of fun to watch. Essentially playing the comic character of the piece, Edge brought a swaggering assurance and charm to the role. His on-stage spouse was played by Yasemin Mireille, who was tasked with portraying a surprisingly multi-faceted version of Kim Kardashian. The Marriage of Kim K isn’t afraid to shy away from the ‘vapidity’ of reality TV, so we had a charming little number in which Mireille sweetly sings an almost contentless make-up tutorial for her adoring fans, but it also brought out the humanity of a woman caught up in a situation that’s spiralling out of control.

The third couple were played by Amelia Gabriel and Stephen Hyde. In many ways, these were the tougher roles, as the couple sang out their bickering and commentary in tandem with both the musical and operatic scenes, switching between styles at the drop of a hat (or the push of a button). Gabriel, in particular, did a sterling job of harmonizing both Kim and the Countess, making an effective vocal ‘glue’ that held the two ‘fictional’ couples together. Hyde’s crochetty counterpoint, rattling off criticisms of reality TV and effusive (but naïve) tributes to opera, stayed just the right side of unsympathetic.

And perhaps that was what was so engaging about The Marriage of Kim K. On the surface, we have six characters who should be unlikable. Stephen is a rather pretentious artist, who has stopped paying attention to his wife; Amelia is becoming weirdly obsessed with Kim Kardashian. Kris is a dim jock who counts his biggest achievement as getting to have sex with a hot famous wife; Kim is a vapid celebrity who performs make-up tutorials and plans to cheat on her husband with a rapper (guess who). The Count is a staggering lothario who revels in humiliating his wife; the Countess spends almost all her time listing the many faults of her husband. And yet… I didn’t dislike any of them at the end. There was warmth, affection and sympathy in all of the characters, for all the pointed lyrics and biting humour.

If I have one criticism of the performance, it would be a technical one. This is a very ambitious piece (musically), as operatic and musical styles are quite different – both in terms of vocal and orchestral performance. Due to technical limitations, this didn’t quite gel as well as it could have done (the hi-hat cymbal overpowered the string quartet at times, and Burnett’s opera occasionally overwhelmed Mireille’s singing). This isn’t a criticism of the performers or the composition, but more that the play at times seemed to stretch the technical limitations of the (admittedly lovely) venue. This is one play that really could do with a sound desk.

But this is a minor criticism, and doesn’t detract from how much I enjoyed the play. The Marriage of Kim K might sound like a bit of a mad idea, but I came away thinking that it all made complete sense. It’s touring a number of fringe festivals this summer, including Birmingham, London and Edinburgh, and there are five more performances at the Greater Manchester fringe this month as well. And it’s a definite recommendation from me.

For more information about the production and upcoming performances, please see the show's website.