Thistledown Theatre’s production of Rebekah King’s new play The Lady’s Mad has toured around the UK during December, with performances at Holy Trinity, Stratford, Somerville College, Oxford, and the Corn Exchange, Wallingford (where I saw it).
Both the play, and the production, are a triumph. Set during the English Civil War, the story concerns Lady Hester Cavill, who receives a delegation from the Roundhead soldiers who have arrived in the parish to seek aid from the Cavill family, particularly Hester’s Parliamentarian husband Sir Arthur. But Hester herself is a Royalist and, in her husband’s absence, refuses to help. Thus begins a stand-off between the Cavill family in their fortified mansion, and the rebel troops who are led, or inspired, by ‘Mad Moll’, the prophetess from ‘the Playhouse at Southwark’. The conflict thus revolves around the two women and their disparate ideologies.
The plot has its roots in historical fact, albeit with the conflict and its protagonists operating within fictional paradigms. Hester is surrounded by her family (including her sister Eleanor, who claims – like Moll – to be a prophetess) and, as the drama mounts, finds herself in the position of having to capitulate to the rebels. To do so without betraying her King she asks her daughter to help her feign madness; thus, the climax of the play is a meeting between two ‘mad’ women: Moll – who is, we find, far from mad – and the equally sane Lady Hester, who attempts to play the part of a madwoman. The play concludes with two ballad-sellers meeting on the road and striking a deal that they will compete to sell a ballad each – one tragic, one comic – based on the story of how ‘two madwomen fought each other for a castle’. Thus the story becomes distorted and sensationalized in a ballad carried around the country as news.
This distortion of truth by the media is one of several subtle messages of the play. One can read parallels with other conflicts, notably between the Civil War of the 1640s and the political divisions of Britain in our own time. There are obvious feminist overtones to the story too, and the play explores the complex roles – both positive and negative – of women during the Civil War. However, on the whole, the narrative avoids moralising and is essentially a story of people, of personalities, caught up in a national conflict with deep social, political, and religious roots. The play is all the better for presenting a human drama rather than more overt symbolism.
The performances, handled by a small cast with some parts doubled-up, are all excellent. Sarah Pyper as Lady Hester has the hardest (and largest) role and carries it off brilliantly. Craig Finlay is splendid as the Roundhead Lieutenant and the tragic balladeer, and Hannah Wilmshurst (in a series of breeches roles) matches him as the comic balladeer, Hester’s younger son Charles, and a Roundhead soldier. Emily Saddler brings a calm authority to Mad Moll, and Laurence Goodwin is excellent as the foolish and self-regarding Eleanor (the only truly unsympathetic character in the play). Billy Moreton impresses as the elder son James, and Daisy Howard shines too in the difficult role of the daughter Anne – a character at once modest and self-effacing, yet quietly deceptive.
The sets, costumes, music, and lighting are all simple, but support the performances well. The director, Nathan Peter Grassi, must take a good deal of credit for the overall success of the play, as indeed must the author. Rebekah King’s script catches the tone and language of the period very well, and is full of drama and wit; sometimes bent to comic effect, but usually deployed to sharpen the exchanges between the characters. The transitions between scenes and between tones (as between the meeting of the two ‘mad’ women, which is intense and cerebral, and the two ballad-sellers, at once witty and bawdy) are handled well by both writer and players. Indeed, it is hard to find anything to complain of in the production. The only criticisms I can make are of a couple of small points in the presentation: the books which lie on Hester’s desk are clearly not of the seventeenth century, and Miss Wilmshurst’s tights in the final scene are rather more Folies Bergère than they are Civil War. However, these criticisms will be perceived for what they are – mere anachronisms.