Published in 1724, the full title of Defoe’s novel is actually “Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress: Or, a History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintselsheim in Germany Being the Person Known by the Name of the Lady Roxana in the Time of Charles II“. Snappy it is not, but it does aid an understanding of the plot.
The core of both novel and resulting playscript is that women, certainly in the early 1700s, were dependent on the men in their lives, and their identities limited to the dichotomy of Mother or Whore. Roxana very clearly chooses Whore. She abandons her children to an uninterested relative in order to follow dreams of independent travel and wealth. This is interesting even to a contemporary audience: society is very damning on any mother who chooses to disown her children.
Sadly, this production chooses to gloss over any moral dilemma, and instead frantically runs through parts of the story using a series of puerile devices, leaving the audience reeling in its wake. And to be clear, I love humour as much as the next person but this is just relentless and exhausting.
The audience was at capacity the evening I was in and so, in the lovely intimate space that is The Bridge House Theatre, the cast were almost on our laps. On entering, the actors are in place spread motionless, tableau style, across a bed. A great device, our attention is immediately drawn to the story. We are swiftly introduced to Roxana herself, played competently by Liv Jekyll. ‘Never marry an idiot’ is the musical refrain that is repeated several times. It is quite catchy and an upbeat start to the show, but what then follows is a farcical, musical madcap performance which misses out critical elements of the original tale. Naturally you have to slim down a novel to fit it into an 80 minute performance but this omits key plot lines that the audience need in order to understand the point of the piece.
Costume changes are many, and frantic, and fail to work, not least because we are so close to the action that any undone button, bodged belt hook or piece of costume left trailing is obvious. The space behind the stage which is used for changing is barely wide enough to fit a person through, so much banging and wobbling of the partition is evident. Wigs are deliberately skew whiff, which I assume is a comic device but just appears amateurish.
There are some genuinely moving musical interludes: Juliette Artigala gently harmonises with a guitar at points, and the beauty and subtlety of that moment shine out in contrast to the rest of the musical performances, which at times are closer to shrieks than song.
Much of the acting is overdone, with extreme facial expressions adopted so that each character becomes a caricature or comical device rather than an integral part of the plot, although Georgie Henley-Carter subtlety moves between her characters well.
The script is deft and lyrical, using a vernacular and rhythm befitting the 18th century but both halves finish so abruptly that many questions are left unanswered. A directorial decision has clearly been made to exaggerate the humour in this production. My advice is turn it down a notch: subtlety of wit and performance will still generate laughs, whilst allowing the complexity of the underlying story to shine through.
Written by: Emma Cornford
Directed by: Sophia Reed & Katherine Toy
Produced by: Ted MacDonnell
Roxana plays at Bridge House Theatre until 3 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.