Straight Acting Theatre
Manchester Theatre Awards
Straight Acting Theatre Company
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
13 February 2018 to 17 February 2018
Plays by Renny Krupinski raise certain expectations – that there will be a degree of psychological complexity and confident physical direction. However, one did not anticipate that Krupinski would devise a play about an 18thcentury French spy who claimed to be female but was raised as male and went on to serve with distinction in the military and who, on return to civilian life, chose to dress as a woman.
Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont (Kaitlin Howard), known as D’Eon is in the twilight of his/her life and living in poverty in London as a woman. Desperate for funds he/she agrees to tell his/her life story to biographer Thomas Plummer (William J. Holstead). But the process is complicated as D’Eon is haunted by the spectres of old foes that materialise to torment him/her about past incidents. D’Eon also has to cope with being the only person who is aware that Patrick Bridgeman, a man very clearly in drag, is playing the harpsichord throughout the play. D’Eon explains that, although female by birth, she was raised as a boy as that was the only way her father could inherit the family fortune. Unwillingly retired from service to the French government D’Eon began dressing as a woman leading to speculation on the London Stock Exchange about his/her true sex. D’Eon claims to be a woman but can anyone believe a professional spy?
D’Eon is a staggeringly ambitious play. There is so much material from the subject’s fascinating life that a topic that could have inspired a play in its own right – a credible plot by France to invade England – is relegated to one of many plot threads. The abundance of material and the long list of characters and events create a real risk of confusion. At times one ends up, as with Shakespeare’s History Plays, treating the list of names and dates babbled by the spectres haunting D’Eon, as white noise and waiting until the plot resumes.
Although stuffed with absorbing facts (D’Eon’s campaign to prevent people betting on his/her sexuality resulted in legislation to ban gambling against the person) the distinguishing feature of the script is wit. The script is full of great gags and word play. When Louis XVI finds himself unable to rise to the occasion his mistress begs ‘Don’t think of England’. As Thomas Plummer, during the chaos arising from D’Eon coping with the spectres, remarks that he was unaware a certain tune originated in France he gets the deadpan reply that the French are a modest race. There is even the occasional topical reference to difficulties negotiating with the English and a shocking twist ending that is, apparently, historically accurate.
As director Krupinski throws the kitchen sink into the staging. The audience gets to see an ongoing duel between D’Eon and Plummer and there is an orgy that is so over the top and squalid it could take place in The President’s Club. But Krupinski always balances the spectacle with humour – a duel between D’Eon and an assassin is set up and then cancelled with a single word.
Such a demanding play requires, and gets, full commitment from a large cast dressed in period costume and creating a gallery of grotesques. It is an excellent ensemble. William J. Holstead’s stuttering, flinching and clumsy Thomas Plummer is both a great comic performance and a counterpoint to the confident and cynical D’Eon. But the production is dominated by a stunning performance from Kaitlin Howard who makes D’Eon an amazing and contrary character – sophisticated but crude, a loyal servant but greedy to the point of corruption and hard as nails but terribly hurt by the slights he/she endured from the government he/she served so well. The sheer physical effort involved in never leaving the stage and performing duels as well must not be overlooked.
With a dense and demanding script, imaginative direction and an excellent cast D’Eon is a play that demands to be seen and is a pleasure to watch.
Reviewer: David Cunningham
Comment by Kevin Bourke
This fabulous and provocative show is based on one of those stories you absolutely would not dare to make up and when Renny first told me a little about it, I was very taken aback to have never even heard of Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont, let alone know about his/her remarkable life story (although I’m led to believe there are places around the world where it might be a slightly more familiar tale). It took Renny quite a while, I understand, to get the story into viable shape for the stage but it’s been time well spent and, as David mentions, bits of plot that could entirely shape a lesser play simply enrich the background here. It’s dense with memorable characters and historical facts (plus more than a few good gags!) but the pace never flags. Crucially, though, it’s emotion that really holds a complex and puzzling story together, largely thanks to the astonishing Kaitlin Howard, who totally owns a quicksilver role that may yet become a new definition for “challenging”. The ensemble are excellent throughout, and I haven’t even mentioned the sword-fighting, snakes, sex and nudity…! Catch it if you possibly can – it certainly deserves to live on in some form. .
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