The Unnatural Tragedy at the White Bear Theatre
It is not often that a play is first performed 350 years after it was written, but that is what is happening in a small theatre in Kennington. The Unnatural Tragedy was not staged during writer Margaret Cavendish’s lifetime. Although she was published in the 17th century despite the limitations on women writers, this particular play would have proven too controversial for even her divisive reputation. In fact, partly due to the excellence of the script and partly due to this savvy production, it feels like this work is quintessentially contemporary and frighteningly relevant.
The director, Graham Watts, clearly revels in the paradox of his new old material. He has chosen a contemporary staging, insightfully recasting Jacobean characters as their modern equivalents: perpetual gap year takers and pretentious North London school girls flit between several interlinking plots. This modernity is helped by Cavendish’s dialogue, which skips and flows through biting comedy to melodramatic tragedy with such ease and familiarity that the audience doesn’t have to warm up to the archaic language.
Where the piece really hits home, however, is in its exploration of gender. Some of this is done in the layered wit that is characteristic of Cavendish. Two actors watch the action along with the audience, stepping out to debate whether a woman can write a script at all, dissecting women’s faults and foibles using a woman’s words. However, some of this gender play leaves a more bitter taste. Jack Ayres gives an incredible performance as Frere, a man overcome with sexual desire for his sister. Ayres pushes spectators to the edge of discomfort in his depiction of a man so convinced of his own suffering and bad luck that he becomes violent and drags the women around him down too. In The Unnatural Tragedy, while female characters are victims of men, men become victims of themselves.
Other stand-out performances come from Madeline Hutchins as a lady unashamed and open about her materialistic goals, and from Alice Welby as Frere’s unfortunate sister. Although the first half leaves the character a little insipid, she comes back with full force in the second part for an upsetting and riveting finale. Unfortunately, the actors become hampered by the clunky staging. Cavendish’s scenes are short, requiring more entrances and exits than usual, a problem left unsolved and resulting in a few awkward scene endings.
Regardless, the team behind this production are doing important work. This play – and countless others – has been left out of the canon and forgotten due to the gender of its writer. Cavendish makes us reconsider what we think we know about Jacobean theatre and challenges our taxonomy of genre. To bring these works out of the archive and onto the stage is an act of revision and defiance, and this one has been done with flair.
The Unnatural Tragedy is at the White Bear Theatre from 3rd July until 21st July 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.