FringeReview UK 2023
Emma Hamilton, mother and ward. Expect spats. Nine months since her National Theatre Kerry Jackson opened, April de Angelis arrives at Jermyn Street with the three-hander Infamous, directed by Michael Oakley, till October 7th. Even though the earlier play was staged in the smaller Dorfman, Infamous is chamber music by comparison. As in Kerry Jackson, De Angelis avoids tragedy where it clearly offers itself. The final two scenes though offer more; it’s piquant, momentarily uplifting, a little sad. And dramatically right it’s expressed in dance.
Directed by Michael Oakley, Designer Fotini Dimou, Lighting Christopher Nairne, Composer and Sound Design Beth Duke, Choreographed by Mandy Demetriou, Assistant Director Brigitte Adela Stage Manager Summer Keeling, ASM Morgan Toole
Marketing/Production Photography Hugo Glendenning and Steve Gregson, PR David Burns, Executive Producer David Doyle
Till October 7th
Nine months since her National Theatre Kerry Jackson opened, April de Angelis arrives at Jermyn Street with the three-hander Infamous, directed by Michael Oakley, till October 7th. Even though the earlier play was staged in the smaller Dorfman, Infamous is chamber music by comparison.
In two brief acts set in 1798 and 1815, Caroline Quentin alternates the role of Emma Hamilton with her daughter Rose Quentin. Riad Richie takes two smaller parts. In the first, young Emma, mid-20s is with her mother, Mrs Cadogan, luxuriating in the Naples palace of Ambassador Sir William, Emma’s complacent husband.
In 1815 (the arithmetic’s awry but let’s go with it) Emma, now late 40s is holed up in a Calais barn with 18-year-old Horatia Nelson, her lover’s daughter
With Emma Hamilton as siren legend, this play happily offstages Sir William, Nelson and potential lovers of young Emma. Focusing on mother/daughter/motherly-protector relationships is its strength. Oakley, whose fifth collaboration with de Angelis this is, knows how to pace this swift, if undramatic play.
Virtually nothing disturbs the core relationship. In the first, young Emma exults in sexual power, but shows callousness too. Mrs Cadogan’s warnings – even sentimentality – are shrewder, grounded in more humanity than Emma’s self-obsessions. Latterly of course it’s different.
Emma in 1815 might ruefully reflect on what her mother said to her in 1798: “Take a look at me, ‘cause that’s you one day.” A mother/daughter face-off gives this a no-holds barred potential. De Angelis’ stripped-back analysis is fine at scorings-off. Though we don’t get shattering moments, there’s latterly a freedom to invent which pays off.
Nelson’s arriving at Naples. Emma’s seizes her pen to emmesh him before anyone else does. Her daughter Emma chillingly packed off to England sets up Mrs Cadogan’s hurt. Emma’s sparkling lust for fame and the right lover is ruthless but necessary. Just as helping to save the Neapolitan royal family and befriending its queen, she fails to save a woman revolutionary poet – causing former admirer servant Vincenzo to scorn her.
Brushing off scandal Emma claims: “I put this place on the map with my soirees. People come her to eat my pineapples. I’ve even invented a whole new art form.” Emma doesn’t want to be muse but creator. Despite expository clunks, De Angelis’ dialogue and sexy non-sequiturs sparks throughout. Some, as Emma returns after a night on the Nelson as it were – “I don’t know what came over me” – are amusingly explicit.
If we’re reminded Emma’s Attitudes sweep Europe through the 1790s they’re re-imagined here in Mandy Demetriou’s choreography: first as comedic attitude, then almost tragic farce. It’s striking we forget how they bridged lightning character studies, ballet with mime, struck through with improv. Emma was a natural musician too, famous from 15. She pioneered the classical dress-style of the period. Rose Quentin nicely balances petulance with appeal.
Fotini Dimou’s costumes follow both sumptuous plunges and plain classical. The elegantly-reversed set rightly earned applause: a gold/eggshell-painted, panelled interior (stained with use) with chaise-long and other luxuries, flips to a slate grey/green washed with poverty. Christopher Nairne’s lighting tracks the falling-off. Beth Duke’s crowd-sounds gradually replace late-classical chamber-music.
There’s no space to focus on how revolutionary Attitudes were. Rose Quentin strikes poses with petulance and affect; later Caroline Quentin burlesques their ghosts in (comparative) age. The shawl‘s everything.
Dancing naked on table-tops for the nobility high-kick-started a career where Emma inspired late 18th century artists: Friedrich Rehberg (Hanoverian classicist), Angelica Kauffman (as muse of comedy, that might be a fascinating play), Gavin Hamilton (Scottish archaeologist-artist), Wilhelm Tischbein (Emma as Iphigenia) and decorative classicist Guy Head, painting Nelson in Naples. Most famously there’s Reynolds, portraitist Romney (Emma’s first, obsessive painter) and Goethe: “She dazzled the whole of Europe”.
There’s revelations including murder. The pathos of the second act, with Caroline Quentin taking fallen Emma as ward Horatia skivvies at cleaning muslin with a pail, is as stark a contrast. Emma’s poses are now delusions as realistic Horatia scratches out eighteen years; and, bitterly, why Emma won’t let her go to her relatives. She produces a letter. Is Horatia kept as insurance?
The act’s freer with less documentation. De Angelis strikes more sparks here too, just as she did with Mrs Cadogan. Rose Quentin’s hard-bitten Horatia, dress as pared-back as she is, shows how circumstance and character confine and liberate. It’s a different time too. This Horatia’s no shape-shifter but intelligent and decisive, with prospects dimmer than the poorest Austen heroine.
The landlord and mayor’s son Jacques Fournier (Richie again, charming and winning) may have come for the rent but dwells on Horatia. She feels they should detest each other – Waterloo’s only months away. Nevertheless, her broken French, his lack of English negotiate an amity. Horatia is acutely aware she’s no Emma by temperament, but has feelings and is as Fournier later claims “beautiful”. He also intuits something else Horatia doesn’t for ages.
As in Kerry Jackson, De Angelis avoids tragedy where it clearly offers itself – here for instance the deliberate failure to save the life of a young woman; but stepping in for the royals shows a ruthlessness worth exploring in the 1798 scenes. It’s as if latterly she refuses intensity and stark power, as well as the chance to truly love and hate characters. Emma Hamilton had passion as well as scheming and erotic self-delight.
That limits the power of this charming, witty, worthy-of-revival piece. The final two scenes though offer more. Rose Quentin, seizing on the chance to act with Richie, allows us glimpses of a young woman emerging in another era; it’s piquant, momentarily uplifting, a little sad. And dramatically right it’s expressed in dance. In one of these scenes, Caroline Quentin etches out despair with comedic undercutting; all in a froth of muslin. Motives for sparring, at least, remain: “Yes. Of course… Because you argue” as Fournier tells Horatia.