English Department | University of Texas | Arlington

Performance Review | Moll Cutpurse. Victorian Drag King: Jo Davies’s “The Roaring Girl”

Rachel Ellen Clark | Wartburg College

 

The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Performance Date: May 12, 2014

 

Jo Davies’s production of The Roaring Girl starts with a blinding flash of light and a loud crash, startling the audience to signal the beginning of this transgressive play. Chaotic and energetic, the production blurs all kinds of lines—not only in terms of gender, but also regarding class and temporality. It is set in 1889 but punctuated by musical cues that are played by a modern, all-female rock band. By blending “New Woman” styles with riot-grrl aesthetics, Davies presents a play that is explicitly, if anachronistically, about women’s liberation. Setting the play in the late Victorian era gives it a direct connection to first-wave feminism, a connection made explicit in the Emmeline Pankhurst tote bags and “Votes for Women” tea towels for sale in the RSC gift shop. However, reviews in publications like The Guardian and The Independent criticize the Victorian setting, giving the play mediocre marks. In doing so, they suggest a dismissive attitude toward some of the explicitly progressive choices of the production. Although the choice to set the play in 1889 and to add extratextual elements sometimes works against Davies, overall this Roaring Girl emphasizes Moll’s liberatory role as transgressive outsider.

Lisa Dillon’s Moll is a boundary-breaker; at one point, in fact, she clambers down the set, making her own way across the gates and barriers that keep the three wives in their shops and the various men in their studies. Dillon’s presence onstage is most akin to a live, stripped electrical wire, crackling and sparking, and her energy drives the rest of the cast, too. While the other women onstage wear cumbersome plaid dresses in somber colors, Moll wears the casual garb of a Victorian boy; even when she does, at one point, don female clothing, not only is it a vibrant scarlet in contrast to the wives’ subdued hues, but it also gets shucked onstage to reveal her true boy’s clothing beneath. Whether dressed as a man or a woman, Moll frequently wears red. Her tartan vest and halter top are both the same predominantly red pattern. The brightness of the color draws eyes to her onstage, but the prominence of red also figures Moll as vivid, sexual, and passionate. The costuming thus emphasizes her moral and sexual freedom in the constrained world of the play.

In the climactic scene, Moll casts off her traditional wedding dress to reveal a plaid halter top, skinny-cut khakis, and flat ankle boots, a 2014-trendy outfit signaling that she is leading the way from the Victorian era to the twenty-first century. At the end of the play, Sir Alexander Wengrave (David Rintoul) is still dressed in Victorian garb, while the younger generation all look like hipsters in 2014. Although costume choices are always important, this production’s official program highlights the particular significance of clothing as gendered performance. A piece by drag king Lenna Cumberbatch declares that “drag kings are celebrations, parodies, embellishments and embodiments.”[1] Davies obviously wants to borrow the transgressive frisson of the drag king to highlight Moll’s still-scandalous performance of masculinity.

The Roaring GirlIntertwined with Moll’s gender trouble is her class status. Like Helen Mirren before her, Dillon adopts a Cockney accent for Moll. In this way, she stands apart not only visually but also audibly from the characters around her. Moll moves freely in the bourgeois world of the merchants, but her freedom results from the fact that she doesn’t belong and doesn’t try to. Her accent never lets the audience forget that. The main plot of the play, of course, hinges on her being an outsider; her utter inappropriateness as a wife—the impossibility of incorporating her into the Wengraves’ prosperous, genteel world—serves as the crux of Sebastian Wengrave’s (Joe Bannister) plot to make his marriage to Mary Fitzallard (Faye Castelow) more acceptable to his stodgy, traditional father. Middleton and Dekker write Moll with ambivalence, depicting her as simultaneously dangerous and powerful, the defiant woman who ultimately works to uphold the status quo. Davies’s update tries to move her firmly into the realm of the progressive, the figure who leads the way in liberating society from the dour strictures of Sir Alexander’s generation.

Where the production falls afoul of the desire for transgression is in the handling of race. Two particular changes that the production makes seem particularly tone-deaf in this regard. First, the canting scene gets transposed to a rap battle—a choice that is inexplicable in a Victorian setting and that shows a troubling inattention to the cultural valences of this change. Cant was the language of thieves and rogues in early modern England; having white actors participate in a rap battle insinuates that rap, too, is the language of thieves and rogues to a modern audience, an implication that is being hotly debated in the US as prosecutors try to use rap music as evidence in criminal trials.[2] Perhaps the racially motivated association of rap music with criminal behavior is stronger in the US than in the UK, but this scene nevertheless contributes to the continued assumption that rap, a genre still strongly associated with its African-American roots, is inherently criminal.

That scene alone might not be so troubling were it not for the second tone-deaf aspect of the production: the creation of a black servant for Moll, who is credited repeatedly in the program as “Annie, Moll’s maid,” the only character with a descriptor attached (presumably because she is never named onstage). Annie, played by Joan Iyiola, follows Moll throughout the production, often holding a parasol over Moll’s head but never speaking. Annie is not the only person of color onstage; the Overworks (Tony Jayawardena and Harvey Virdi) are of Indian descent, and their presence adds depth and complexity to the dynamics among the various middle-class characters. Annie, on the other hand, adds only a stereotype. Even at the end, when Moll kisses her and the two are thus revealed as (or present themselves as) a lesbian couple, the kiss seems to come out of nowhere—the silent interactions that Moll and Annie have had up to that point do not indicate that they are anything more than mistress and maid. In a Victorian setting, there is quite a lot of room to play with the conventions of female companionship (paid or chosen), but the production never does so; instead, the kiss is the equivalent of the flashbang at the beginning, played for shock and awe.

The production wants to congratulate itself on its progressiveness, on the way that it takes a seventeenth-century text, stages it in the Victorian era, and updates all of those mores and conventions for the twenty-first century to include homosexuality. But instead of lauding Moll’s relationship, by limiting it to a kiss at the end, the production turns that kiss into mere spectacle; instead of presenting a positive depiction of an interracial lesbian relationship, it raises the possibility that Moll is taking advantage of her servant. Furthermore, Moll stands conspicuously apart throughout the resolution of the play, while the comedy wraps up with marriages and reconciliation. By resisting marriage, she also resists incorporation into the world of the comedy at the end of the play—and suggesting that she resists marriage because she’s a lesbian means that the production excludes the only gay couple from the text’s happy ending. The problem isn’t that the play is too progressive; it’s that it’s not as progressive as it thinks it is.

Nevertheless, Moll, who delivers the epilogue, has the final word of the play, which explicitly breaks down expected boundaries between Moll Cutpurse and the audience. Those boundaries are as much an anachronism to the play as the Victorian costumes and the electric guitars are, but here they work to gloss over some of the problems with the production as a whole precisely by obscuring the original context. Middleton and Dekker’s final lines read as follows:

The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence,

Shall on this stage give larger recompense;

Which mirth that you may share in, herself does woo you,

And craves this sign: your hands to beckon her to you.[3]

Dillon’s Moll leaves out the reference to promise of an appearance by the historical Moll Frith. Instead, the emphasis lies on the last two lines, and Moll rejoins the community onstage not by marrying but by inviting the audience to “beckon” her to them. Dillon makes good on the final words by giving audience members high fives as the rest of the cast begins to dance. In a modern nod to seventeenth-century tradition, Moll leads the jig that ends the play.

Ultimately, the production leaves one feeling energized and entertained by a clever and well-designed performance. However, the effort to disentangle The Roaring Girl from its original context in order to highlight its feminism simultaneously makes it more and less successful. On the one hand, the program uses quotations from Lady Gaga, Pussy Riot, and Janelle Monae to give modern audiences an easier handle by which to grab onto this complex play. On the other hand, by removing the play from its original context, the production elides the lived reality of the woman who inspired it all: Moll Frith. Although a helpful blurb by Emma Smith introduces “the real-life roaring girl,” many historical references in the play are transposed—instead of religious feast days, for example, characters refer to Bank Holidays. These choices certainly give the play more pointed teeth when it comes to capitalism and class. But they also alienate anyone who knows the play well, in addition to implying that gender roles remained much the same from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. This assumption that women before the twentieth century lived an undifferentiated and monolithically oppressed existence runs precisely contrary to the characters of Moll and the play’s other women.

In other words, Davies’s production of The Roaring Girl is rousing good fun; it features stellar performances by a wonderfully talented cast. It also inspires thoughtful discussion. I saw it with fourteen college students, who loved its dynamic hilarity and innovative design and use of stage space. But they, too, found the character of Annie problematic at best and a cheap ploy at worst. In the end, the production is compelling but flawed, a fascinating and ambitious update that takes important strides toward more diverse casting even while making a couple of missteps. In doing so, though, it retains the spirit of The Roaring Girl: challenging, defiant, and exuberant.

Rachel Ellen Clark

Wartburg College

 

Rachel Ellen Clark is assistant professor of English at Wartburg College. Her current book project investigates nostalgia and cultural memory during the reign of Charles I.

[1] Lenna Cumberbatch, “King of the Castle,” The Roaring Girl (Stratford-upon-Avon: Royal Shakespeare Company, 2014), np.

[2] See Lorne Manly, “Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun,” New York Times, March 27, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/27/arts/music/using-rap-lyrics-as-damning-evidence-stirs-legal-debate.html; “Rap Lyrics Used as Evidence in Criminal Cases,” PBS Newshour, June 29, 2014, accessed July 2, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rap-lyrics-used-evidence-court/.

[3] Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl, in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), Epilogue 35-38.