It is 1660 and the Restoration Comedy is born. Encouraged by Charles II this period of theatre was delightfully ribald, bold and bawdy. It introduced the first professional female actors as well as the first professional female playwright. Male actors are ‘boy players’ while female actors are playing in ‘breeches roles.’ It is amongst all of this that Jeffrey Hatcher sets his Compleat Female Stage Beauty.
Delicious in its irreverence, CFSB captures the tone of the Restoration Comedy which, to a certain extent, could be seen as the Phoenix’s ultimate ‘up yours’ as it rises from the still smoldering Puritan ashes. Director Chris Baldock comments: “The language is definitely adults only! The character of Nell Gwynne first appears to us behind a shield, wearing a helmet and nothing else. And another character exposes a breast for the sake of bums-on-seats. There is also a crucial scene that is the turning point of the play. I won't elaborate but suffice to say, some people may take offence at some of the language. I however, refuse to see it as anything other than an absolutely necessary part of the play and Kynaston's journey. The audiences have been warned of strong language and adult themes. The onus is now on them as to how they wish to react.”
Maggie Chrétien, playing Nell Gwynne, is understandably anxious but completely philosophical about some of her more risqué requirements.” Thinking of the partial nudity during rehearsals gives me small heart palpitations!” she says. “ It will be the first time I have done this, however, I am looking forward to the challenge and it shows such an important part of Nell’s personality!”
A play of this sort would, of course, not be complete without the costumes and, if the still shots are any indications, this one is indeed a delightful Costume Fest of the garb of the day – and all the accoutrements – as well as wigs and makeup. Costume plays are the dream that all self respecting thespians share and, it would seems, is one shared by Chrétien. “To be honest, its always been a dream of mine to be part of a “period piece” so that I get to wear the amazing costumes, hair and make-up!’ she says.
Another important element of any period piece is understanding the mores and behaviours of the day and, as actors, how to effectively allow that character to inhabit the body of your 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' self. Comments Director, Baldock: “Apart from the costumes, wigs and make-up, it's essential that we try to avoid a modern sensibility and yet still make it relatable to the audience. There are the issues of etiquette – bowing, curtseying, the way one walks or sits. An actor can never paraphrase and throw an "OK" in for instance. I have seen that happen so many times.”
To allow the audience to make that successful transition in time with the actor is so important and Baldock was certainly attune to it very early. The importance of the audition process, in the hands of an expert director, is the foundation of all. CFSB has very specific demands and challenges – Baldock explains his audition process: “My main prerequisite was that, besides the needed physical attributes, the actors had a feel for both the witty comedy and the intense drama of the piece. There are a couple of very particular styles needed for the play. There is the heightened theatricality of the Shakespeare pieces at the beginning of the play, the heightened reality in other sections and the realism of a few of the more moving, dramatic moments. And threaded throughout all this, there needs to be an absolute truth to the proceedings. I needed to find actors who understood the play and those requirements – or at least show the capability that they could get it. Luckily I got them. To see the likes of Angelo De Cata jump from a larger-than-life Othello, to the outrageous theatre luvvie to the tragedy of a friend betrayed and helpless, is a joy to behold.”
The protagonist of CFSB is Restoration actor Edward Kynaston who is portrayed by actor Scott Middleton. Middleton’s journey has been incredibly challenging but undoubtedly rewarding as Kynaston life is explored (with dramatic license) by Hatcher. “By the end of Act One, he has lost everything he knows, his lover, his job, his friends and almost his life. And Act Two is his journey, from a very dark place to try and find his place in a world he doesn't know anymore. There are so many peaks and troughs in this story that I know the audience won’t be able to help but follow with intrigue and wonder at what's to happen next.”
“ This play is significant for me because I honestly think that this story is incredibly relatable and genuinely enjoyable, it is a really good play. I feel like everyone who comes to see the show will enjoy it for different reasons. Billed as a comedy, I think it very cleverly presents all the enjoyable aspects of a comedy, but still has such a heart and depth you would expect to see in a drama. It doesn't aim to please or try too hard to do so. The comedy comes from the characters and the story, and the story is so strong that you can't help but go on the journey of the play. I think it is very important to produce these kinds of plays, high quality, strong and relatable story, entertaining and enjoyable.”
CFSB promises humour with heart. It’s brave, gutsy and respectful and according to Baldock will resonate long after the final curtain falls. “To see a play and a story that is different for community theatre can only be a good thing. To be taken on an exciting, hilarious, moving journey and to be thoroughly entertained in the process, is an added bonus. I think we have a production to be proud of and I hope it's one audiences will also take away and cherish as I know everyone involved will do.”
Compleat Female Stage Beauty plays at Williamstown Little Theatre from April 19 – May 5