Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The passionate correspondence between Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig is brought to life in the one woman show Teddy and Topsy. Both deeply in love with one another, the pair are destined to be apart as the love of their work keeps them away. Teddy and Topsy was realised by writer and director Robert Shaw and performer Nellie McQuinn who portrays the strength and fragility of Isadora Duncan to perfection. Duncan’s love letters offer a glimpse into the past, when communication was more considered.
Isadora Duncan is known for two things; being killed in a freak accident, strangled by her scarf when it got caught in the spokes of a motorcar’s wheel, and pioneering modern dance. However her love life has been notoriously ambiguous. Is she a lesbian? Who are the fathers of her children? Teddy and Topsy allows insight to the unconventional life of a female artist in the early 1900’s. Against a never-before-seen neoclassical backdrop, designed by Gordon Craig for Duncan whilst pregnant with their child Deirdre stands McQuinn. Her soft flesh swathed in the folds of white cotton. An enigmatic figure, capturing the essence of Duncan holds the audience’s attention as her beguiling energy and warmth draws you in. The couple’s love letters take you on a journey of passion and despair, their love suffering due to geographical distance. Relying on the inconsistency of letters allows jealousy to fuel Duncan’s neurotic temperament. We follow Duncan on her tour of Europe, Russia and South America, where she experiences the frustration of commercialism in art, the tragic death of her children and the uncertainty of Craig’s commitment.
Teddy and Topsy spins a compelling tale, handled with respect and entrusted to the narrator like a fable. The poetry of the letters are enticing to a modern audience as they bucks against today’s perfunctory style of correspondence. In a pre-telephonic age when even the voice of a loved one was unreachable, waiting for a letter must have been agony and the reply from a recipient ecstasy. Mcquinn manages to strike a balance as although the love letters are at times gushing with affection the delivery is earnest but never saccharine. Duncan is shown to be charming and infectious; a character who can easily rise to hysteria. McQuinn navigates the rolling nature of Duncan’s character with a depth and commitment that prevents the changeable moods of Duncan becoming heady and droll.
As the flyer informs, it is ‘a play with dance’. Duncan style dance is used to punctuate and divide the play to show the passing of time. Interspersed with snippets of quintessential Duncan technique McQuinn uses the movement to emphasise her character’s mood. McQuinn, an accomplished dancer doesn’t quite embody the Duncan style as her static poses and weight distributions are closer to the ballet style. Ballet was a dance style that Duncan didn’t approve of saying that it was “ugly and against nature”. If McQuinn could free her head and hips a little more and continue to act through her body as well as her face whilst dancing the consistency of the show would benefit. The dance should become an extension of the words and the words an extension of the dance.