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Brighton Fringe 2010

Five Clever Courtesans

Cabinets of Curiousity

Venue: The Marlborough Theatre, Brighton


Low Down

Five dead courtesans, "sisters of a sort", tell their tales, brought together by the magic of Venus. Five "exquisite creations", vying for the position of "greatest" find themselves in an afterlife ‘demi-monde’, reflecting on the other halfworld of prostitution they inhabited on earth. This is the setting for a fine production from Cabinets of Curiousity.



This is an exciting production from Cabinets of Curiousity, inviting us to enjoy the stories of five of history’s most seductive women, awakened by Venus in an afterlife state, reflecting on their lives, on, men, on love and the quest for happiness.

In a piece that presents us with the courtesans in full period dress boldly, strikingly and lavishly onstage ( we enter and they are already there on stage, with their backs to us), we have the patron saint of prostitutes, we are taken to the glory of Venice, to the taboos of Victorian England, to the Restoration, and into the common ground of al ages that share the existence of the oldest profession. For example, Veronica Franco – the harlot poet, (Henry the Third paid to visit her chamber), recounts her tales, as we are listeners to the autobiogrpahical reflections of these powerful women.
This is a show about "the skills of love, the skills of desire." These are all clever women, whose cleverness was concerned with turning their situations to their own advantage. Patience, ingenuity, learning not to be squeamish, cunning, flattery, affected modesty, and most of all, watching and listening. For them knowlege is, of course, power. They become "looking glasses" for their lovers, which endows them ultimately with power over them.
What a throughly enjoyable, lively, and charismaticaly performed show this five-hander is! Crisp, clear delivery, full-hearted story-performance. Cabinets of Curiousity takes us from the Forbidden City in the East to the intrigues of Victorian England with fluency and energy. The audience go willingly. There was much laughter throughout. There were tender moments, and even a cat-fight.
The staging is simple: period costumes, a brightly-lit stage, a black curtained backdrop. It’s a clever theatrical opportunity in itself – to bring these wilful women together to compete with each other in front of an audience over the compellingness of their personal histories. Insodoing, it isn’t surpising that the theatre itself becomes compelling as well – a mix of story telling, story performance, dialogue and some monologue.
So convincing are these characters that they really seem to be just as we remember them, despite the fact that we never actually met any of them in the flesh! We’re drawn in. It’s a show that brings history interestingly and engagingly to life.
The weakness of the production  lies in the way the writer has set up these characters. They aren’t delineated enough in the text itself and sometimes it feels they are simply a vessel for the writer’s admittedly sharp and clever wordplay. A more elaborate and character-specific deployment of idiom would help add variety and richness to the textural landscape of this very impressive production. More consistency needed here, for that variety comes and goes throughout and sometimes the characters have a vanilla feel.
The script is eloquent, dense, and rather overflowing with evidence of the obvious research that has gone into it. Sometimes it feels as if lines directly from history books have been put too directly into the actors’ mouths. During these moments the piece feels too documentary and sometimes too polemical. It really comes to life when they are allowed to speak in a less documentary way, or to simply interact with each other.
All in all, these are very strong performances from all five actors, sometimes weighed down too much by a script too loaded with documentary research. Lighten that load and a very promising production will come even more to life and reach outstanding.
Still, it’s highly recommended for richness and evocativeness of content and top quality performances from  all five actors.