Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Five of history’s most notorious courtesans are made flesh again in some kind of afterlife, where they compare notes on their lives at the top of their professions. Bitching, bawdiness and ultimately some female bonding ensues as they come to respect and congratulate each other for using their wit as well as their bodies to make their way in a man’s world.
Five of history’s most famed courtesans are resurrected to become flesh once more in what appears to be some kind of eternal afterlife. Jealously recounting their victories the women at first size each other up like catty rivals, but female solidarity softens them as they reflect on how much they have in common and congratulate each other on having the wit to use their bodies and their minds to take them to the very top of their profession.Poet, actress and dictator are amongst the occupations listed on the CVs of these five historical courtesans, who include women as diverse as Nell Gwyn and China’s Dragon Lady, T’zu Hsi. Their histories and their fame as the most notorious prostitutes of their day are given and defended by these proud and clever women, who see no shame in using their bodies to lift them from the common crowds of their day and put food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.
The costumes are beautiful, perfectly evoking their era (with perhaps the exception of Cora Pearl, whose long black boots struck an incongruously modern note). There are moments of comedy and genuine warmth between the women which are the high point of the show, and the historical nuggets do leave you coming away from the show slightly better informed than you were before. Despite this, the writing on the whole is flabby and overdone. Long narrative detours take the audience down dead-ends, adding minutes rather than insight. At an hour and a half even the most polite audience member was shifting in their seat and checking their watches as they sweltered in C Aquila.
For me personally the length was unforgivable. What would have been a mildly amusing romp at an hour felt like punishment at an hour and a half. The sad thing is that with better direction and ruthless editing this has the potential to be really very good. If it played to its strengths and focused on being a tight comedy with moments of genuine pathos, instead of embarking on flights of metaphorical fancy that do nothing to further the plot or the relationships between the women, this would be lively and watchable. Instead we have moments of cod morality (oh, these modern women with their surgery and botox) and a Venus motif that detracts force from the central focus, which should surely be these wonderfully intriguing women.
It also feels like a waste of some talented actresses. Better direction would have brought out more warmth and sensuality in what are, after all, supposed to have been some of the sexiest women in history. The reality is more like burlesque without the self-aware comedy. Georgina Panton managed to buck the trend for declaiming every sentence, and her performance as Nell Gwynn was all the more earthily sensuous for it. Frustratingly, there are moments when you can see where this play could have gone in different hands. When there is more interaction between the characters the mannequins take on life, and the stage lights up – only to sputter out again. A girl-on-girl kiss feels gratuitous, but then the audience probably deserves some titillation for sitting there so patiently.
With a ruthless editor and a little more soul in its direction Five Clever Courtesans would be a warm and witty little gem. It’s all there, but unfortunately so is an extraneous thirty to forty minutes of padding, narrative dead ends and cold spots – unlike the venue, which might be the hottest place in Edinburgh. But there is comedy, there are delightful little historical nuggets, and if you are so inclined there’s some minor bawdiness to titillate. Just make sure you take a fan and a bottle of water – it’s going to be a long hot night.