The Unnatural Tragedy at the White Bear Theatre

Carleigh Nicholls reviews the first production (ever!) of Margaret Cavendish’s The Unnatural Tragedy.

“If women were employed in the affairs of state, the world would live more happily.” Thus proclaims one of the sociable virgins in Margaret Cavendish’s The Unnatural Tragedy, published circa 1662. During the interval of this production at the White Bear Theatre, audience members could be heard saying that it was hard to believe this work was written in the seventeenth century. Certainly, for a play whose central plot lines include abuse and incest, Cavendish’s work feels remarkably modern and extremely relevant.

 Director Graham Watts has done the commendable job of publicly staging this production for the very first time. Unlike the female playwright Aphra Behn and other Restoration writers, Margaret Cavendish’s works have remained obscure. Having lived through the Civil Wars and Interregnum years, Cavendish saw first hand the world turned upside down, and it is a pity that contemporaries such as Samuel Pepys and later writers like Virginia Woolf alike have subverted her achievements. Indeed, Watts has done the public some good by shedding light on this noteworthy woman.

The play follows three thematically related plots, each loosely connected to one another, highlighting the differing sorts of power relations between men and women. The central plot follows Frere (Jack Ayres) and his growing unnatural feelings for his sister, Soeur (Alice Welby). The second plot follows Malateste’s (Alan Booty) relationship with his wife and maid. The third, and arguably the highlight of the play, centres on the sociable virgins who are “a company of young ladies that meet every day to discourse and talk, to examine, censure, and judge of everybody and of everything,” as one character describes them.

Having never before been staged, Watts and Performance Designer Alys Whitehead have had to be truly imaginative. As such, this is a modern production, and it works very well. Frere is depicted as a backpacker on a gap year. The maid Nan (Charlotte Monkhouse) wears a crop top and vapes. In a stroke of genius, the sociable virgins are portrayed as high school girls. When discussing Homer, they carry editions of The Odyssey, and their discussion on the role of women in government includes a character giving a power point presentation on the subject.

Cavendish’s play is filled with short scenes and vignettes, which could be tricky to stage due to the choppy nature of the scenes.  However, Watts has been able to avoid this with the inclusion of smart transitions that allow the story to run smoothly. For instance, Watts has Malateste meet his next wife at a rummage sale at the school, where he is dropping off his first wife’s clothing, rather than having him appear out of no where like in the naked text. It is scenes like this that really bring the story to life.

As the long suffering and emotionally abused Madame Bonit, Alison Mead is the standout. In her short scenes, she portrays both a quiet grief and strength simultaneously. Likewise, Charlotte Monkhouse plays her nemesis, the adulterous Nan. For a rather vile character, Monkhouse actually makes the role somewhat sympathetic in her final scenes. Jack Ayres has the most challenging role as the incestuous Frere, and he keenly portrays Frere’s mental anguish. Alice Welby does a good job showing Soeur’s disgust at her brother’s advances, but she could perhaps act a bit more shocked. Eleanor Nawal, Lily Donovan, Madeleine Hutchins and Phebe Alys portray the sociable virgins. They have great chemistry with one another, and their scenes are a delight to watch. The rest of the cast is also strong.

Following Madame Bonit’s death, a servant bewails: “for most love the dead better than the living, and many will hate a friend when they are living and love them when they are dead.” Unfortunately for Cavendish, her works were underappreciated in her lifetime. Perhaps now, thanks to the likes of Watts and his team, contemporary readers and audiences will get to know and appreciate her intellect.

4/5

The Unnatural Tragedy will be playing at the White Bear Theatre until July 21, 2018.


Carleigh Nicholls is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but is currently based in London. She is a great appreciator of theatre, particularly plays with a historical nature, but enjoys all genres. Her general research interests include politics, religion, and the law in Stuart Britain, with a particular focus on Restoration Scotland.