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Brighton Fringe 2018

Low Down

Gillian English writes, directs and produces this one-woman show, lit by Adam Hutson of the Werks, to whom she indicates just once when to dim lighting for Margaret’s softer side: her vitriolic speeches. Apart from a purple velvet gown, in a rather hot underground studio, and a crown she never removes, Margaret enjoys no props save a large vanilla-coloured folder entitled ‘Shit Shakespeare Made Me Speak’ on a chair. Till May 27th.


So what did Harvey Weinstein and the fifteenth century European ruling classes have in common? Exactly. A lot.


This is a strikingly relevant study for the Me Too generation, how someone in the fifteenth century is objectified functionally, politically, sexually, and that unless you fight some men will take you all the way back there, if you let them. As regards having a baby king, to which we’ll come to. Well, we have a baby in the White House. Plus ca change.


Gillian English fuses fury, storytelling, fury and Shakespeare’s mendacious propaganda speeches he puts into the mouth of Margaret of Anjou. Married to the drooling cucumber Henry VI in 1445, she feels politically, sexually and emotionally deprived. Most of the time he’s in a catatonic trance. Which is a pity since as soon as the Hundred Years war finish we get another thirty with Roses all the way.


Margaret’s blamed for that, for challenging Richard of York’s usurpation of the crown. after all unlike her grandmother and mother she’s not allowed rulership; it’s the king. So by those rules her dribbling husband is still king. The nobles agree. Kick-off from 1454-1485.


English writes, directs and produces this one-woman show, lit by Adam Hutson of the Werks, to whom she indicates just once when to dim lighting for Margaret’s softer side: her vitriolic speeches. Apart from a purple velvet gown, in a rather hot underground studio, and a crown she never removes, Margaret enjoys no props save a large vanilla-coloured folder entitled ‘Shit Shakespeare Put in my Mouth’ on a chair – which shit she duly spouts. Afterwards she sells badges. Either give them away or just don’t. It’s her only slip.


Each show’s tailored to audience response. See what Margaret you get. In this one we’re asked to name plays we like and English, back from six months in Australia with a comic aversion to Perth and affection for Tasmania, assumes people aren’t too familiar. Asked what age people might guess she was married off, this writer ventures thirteen, but they’re not quite that paedophilic here, English answers: thirteen was Juliet and Lady Capulet only twenty-six (not old then, Anne Hathaway was twenty-six when she married Shakespeare). No. Guess again. This shows English at her interactive best, she improvises on what she knows, which is a good deal.


She brisks through what she reminds us are the most unperformed trio of Shakespeare’s plays, the Henry VI trilogy, and adds for good measure that though Margaret wasn’t quite so active by Richard III’s accession, Shakespeare in his eponymous play ensures Margaret is still at the London court dispensing bile with impunity.


So Shakespeare’s a propagandist. Having established this English launches into suddenly dimmed lighting for a more rapt delivery of speeches from the three Henry plays. English has the rationale and clarity of a good Shakespearean and it’s vital she has, to contrast with her kick-ass high-voltage delivery – brought blissfully into play when she sees off someone’s ringing mobile which she deals with admirably.


English delivers her words with a fluency and sense of blank versification – and the tempo too eddies in direct contrast with her firecracker persona. In the Harold Bloom sense (if that isn’t referencing the patriarchy too solemnly), she’s overhearing herself as a stage character, doubly so. It’s a thinking, strongly articulated progression through each phase of Margaret’s life.


In the Richard III section English does something different with the extra-long speech and adds an admirably lucid gloss every few lines. You won’t nod at any of this – English buttonholes and clarifies as she goes.


Contrasting this with Margaret’s actual life English brings up reflections of what six hundred years indicates (well OK five hundred and fifty). Crushed adolescent sexuality, an inability to wield power in the absence of a husband in the manner her mother and grandmother manage – hence her developed temperament. And English continually reminds us of the construction of unnatural women, the genital focus and frigid/whore tightrope people like Weinstein still enforce today.


English is on a mission to deconstruct such figures, whose inheritance of bright lively genes and a kick of inheritance allowing women just that nudge more autonomy, gets you a she-wolf.


Add to that the fact that the only hot man around is her enemy Edward IV, and you’re subjected to the bleak facts. Did Margaret have a lover? It would have meant death as treason to a dribbling king. But then Margaret’s a she-wolf, right? She manages as she says to have sex and ‘push out one son.’


So what Margaret did think of Warwick the kingmaker? And Richard of York? And that bit about her on battlefields. Well and that fondness for paper crowns. Well she married a paper king maybe.


There’s tragedy and bitter triumph for Margaret, but either you know it or you’re going to have to find out for yourself. The five-hundred odd year spoiler alert’s still in place.


English is more than well-versed in the material. She makes excellent use of recent scholarship on Richard III’s scoliosis (that phantom hump back, though he had a small one) and points out we all have it to a degree (we’re looking over our shoulders). She might have added he was only eight at his father York’s beheading in 1460. One of those Shakespearean compressions English delights in guying elsewhere.


English misses very few tricks though I wonder if these could be incorporated since they add fuel to her argument. Edward IV the Sexy was we now know the illegitimate son of the Duchess of York and a strapping young archer. Henry VI Parts Two and Three were originally The Houses of York and Lancaster and The Tragedy of Richard Duke of York – and they weren’t by Shakespeare at all! The prentice Shakespeare as a practical theatre talent was asked in to scumble verve and vim over them like a palimpsest; and the words English cleverly avoids about Margaret: ‘tiger wrapped in a woman’s hide’ possibly weren’t Shakespeare’s.


All this would take just a few words of explanation. I can just hear English tearing these prentice works apart. She tends to exaggerate numbers but this is a tiny caveat. Shakespeare wasn’t writing two hundred years on, but nearer one hundred and ten to about one hundred and thirty (we date his Henry VI plays to 1589-92 including the earlier writers’ efforts). It does mean though that he’s that much closer to the propaganda English identifies as essential to Tudor legitimacy. Finally Shakespeare’s sole-authored Henry VI Part One (the 1623 Folio re-labelled them all) was as English knows originally King Harry the Sixth. I wonder if something could have been said about Harry the Ninth as English mentions that recent wedding.


English has achieved a phenomenal amount. She co-ordinates everything, can’t relax into herself for a moment as she directs and manages her own minimal props. She’s played to ungrateful venues. And sees off a phone with some dignity. One feels English mightn’t take kindly to a male reviewer suggesting that her show could be even finer if she employed a (female?) director who could furnish props, take care of production issues and let English focus on modulating. The one thing I miss – and English nearly gets there – is the pathos, the suffering out she hits at in some of her later speeches. Since this isn’t just a history lesson but a lesson in tagging, name-calling and Me Too, I think scoring the abuse and pathos underneath such bright-necked humour could make it really special.