Brighton Fringe 2010
Hannah, an Artist in Dirt
Bred in the Bone Theatre
Venue: Upstairs at Three and Ten
This is the true story of a remarkable love affair between a maid of all work and a celebrated poet that defied convention and scandalised Victorian society.
Walking Upstairs at Three and Ten, we hear the strains of an old English folk tune. Entering the space, we’re immediately in a different era with actors inhabiting their world with a calm assurance that’s compelling to watch.
The intimacy of the space, with limited audience sitting on either side of the action, is perfect for what unfolds as an intense and mesmerising relationship, revealing itself an arm’s length away.
In fact, at times one feels voyeuristic as a deeply disturbing manifestation of love is played out in the form of a series of master/servant rituals, punctuated throughout by the sensitive and intelligent underscoring of Daniel Gott’s accordion playing.
Bred in the Bone Theatre are an international company and their roots in European physical theatre shine through in precise and mesmerising actions that have the solemnity of religious fervour. Each gesture of servitude – the removal of boots in order to lick, the self-daubing of black polish to fulfil yet another of the master’s fantasies – is given such reverence and allowed such time to develop that the air is ripe with tantalising anticipation.
In the hands of less skilled actors, this might conjure the feeling of laughing in assembly. However, Tanya Munday holds us in the palm of her proudly callused hand with her ability to turn household chores into elaborate seduction. The character of Hannah displays a wonderful balance of down to earth drudge and masterful coquetry, both master and servant of her own destiny and Munday displays this with the elegance and ease of a tightrope walker. Leigh Kelly is equally strong as the Victorian master, held together only by his stiff upper lip and starched collar, but vulnerable as a child when he craves the embrace of his servant lover as she scoops him onto her lap to rock him. Again, this could stray into the acting territory of cod melodrama, but Leigh inhabits this flawed character with such authenticity and integrity that we are at pains to cast judgement on the morals of the bizarre relationship he’s maintaining.
The play is created from the diaries and journals of Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby and as Hannah wrote – ‘Our is a story that a hundred years hence no one would believe.’ Luckily for us, this story has come to light through the help of this gem of a company. It’s not an easy world to inhabit, but it’s intriguing and very well conceived – and I doubt the floorboards of the venue have ever been so immaculately clean!