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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Mrs. President

Genre: Biographical Drama, Theatre



Low Down

Mary Todd Lincoln was the wife and widow of the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln. She has been consistently ranked one of the worst, if not the worst, First Ladies in US history. This play tries to address this issue and maybe even attempts to set the record straight by means of imagined meetings between Mary Lincoln and the US’s first celebrity photographer, Matthew Brady.


When the audience enters, we see a woman in a romper suit that suggests the early 1900s, resting on an ornately carved wooden chair. Opposite her is a man in a white rough shirt and woollen trousers with suspenders from a similar time period. He rests on a late 19th-century dry plate-type camera with a black cloth. The room fills with gong sounds as the woman wakes up, stretches, walks around her chair, moving her limbs carefully as to bring life back to them. The soundscape changes to that of a busy environment, maybe a fair or a circus. The voices are indistinguishable and incomprehensible.

As the two start talking, the audience is confused. Who are these people and what are they talking about? They talk about Brady and the Lincolns in the third person. He declares Brady as the alchemist of the wet plate, i.e., daguerreotype, the first photography available. The lady declares she is Irish, but not a person. She was a tree that, at 350 years old, was turned into an ornate chair. She tells how when the Lincolns came, she was damaged. It becomes apparent that he is the camera. Just as the audience settles to hear a story told by things, the camera is moved away and she, the chair, dresses in a huge crinoline mourning dress brought in by him, the camera.

While she dresses extremely slowly and carefully, he sits at the front of the stage and pours grey coarse sand, reminiscent of flash powder, into his hand and lets it pensively run through his fingers to the ground. She is still occupied with the dress when he picks up the powder bag and pours the contents slowly and with poise in a half-circle on the ground. The length and deliberateness of this scene make it increasingly more uncomfortable to watch.

This becomes a theme for this production. The audience is always on its toes, never allowed to be at ease and just relax into the play. Each time when we think we know what is going on, we are thrown into something else. It makes the atmosphere very tense and at times it is hard to follow the story. Every gesture and every movement is filled with meaning that is not always clear. Nothing in this production is left to chance by the director, Lily Wolff.

While the endless gong sounds are now joined by a glockenspiel, she has finished dressing, puts on her jewellery, and kisses a photograph that she pulls from her skirt. She is ready and calls Mr. Brady. He enters with a pained face and tinted glasses. He calls her Mrs. Lincoln, and she corrects him to Mrs. President. This becomes a recurring theme of the play.

Slowly, very slowly, information transpires from their conversations. We are never quite sure if the conversations that follow are imaginations by Brady, who claims to be haunted by his creations, or flashbacks to events that actually happened. The audience is drip-fed the information, and the script, written by John Ransom Phillips in a very stilted prose, is at times quite hard to follow. Information that seems an aside in one scene becomes important must-have knowledge in another. We jump back and forth in time without clear pointers, which doesn’t necessarily help. Mrs. Lincoln, played by Leeanne Hutchison, is portrayed as a strangely aloof character who glides across the stage aimlessly. There seems to be very little attempt to portray the character in a historic way and actually bring across why she was and is disliked so much by her contemporaries and historians. This leads to the facts mentioned in the play feeling at odds with the presentation we have on stage.

The characterization of Brady, played by Christopher Kelly, is even less historically accurate. Much of Brady’s work was taken by his assistants due to his bad eyesight. The real Brady was more of an artistic director of his photography studio than an actual photographer. This also explains his large output. However, it was William H. Mumler who took the ‘ghost photographs,’ an elaborate hoax that led to a court case. In the play these pictures are also credited to Brady.

Much in this play is really confusing, and there is a whole scene between Mrs. Lincoln and Brady about John Brown’s execution, with Brady becoming a hanged John Brown complete with a noose. Only, there is no evidence that Brady was even there, let alone that there was a photograph taken. There is also one scene where there is Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, also played by Christopher Kelly, or is it supposed to be Brady, who knows, talks to Mrs. Lincoln about women being a man’s property and then draws a very weak arch to the Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling from 1857, portraying it as if it was his sole decision and not a majority ruling. This historic muddling of facts is not helpful to a predominantly UK audience who might not be so well versed in every nuance of US history.

This play claims to be ‘about the power of representation’ and that ‘subject and artist battle for creative control over their narratives’. However, this intent doesn’t really come across. The author is too free in his writing to allow this play to be called historic. It is obvious that the idea of who owns the image an artist creates, the sitter or the creator, is interesting to Philips, who is a painter himself, but it doesn’t seem well explored in this play. It is also an odd choice to focus an artist who famously didn’t actually take the pictures that are published under his name but were taken by a whole host of sadly nameless assistants.

The costumes by Kristine Koury are an attempt at historical dress, but are too much of a muddle to convince. Most odd is the prominent use of a zip on the front of the bodice of Mrs. Lincoln’s crinoline dress when a hook and eye ribbon would have at least given the illusion of a front busk closure. This is very much at odds with the style of the production, designed by Stefan Azizi, and the choices made by the director.

The play’s saving grace is the actors who work very hard to bring the elaborate and confusing plot, and very difficult language alive. It is truly a beautiful performance to watch, even when the audience isn’t any wiser leaving the theatre than when it entered. The show will be further improved when the questions the play boldly claims to explore are dealt with more thoroughly.