Left – Conor Gallacher and Elisa Armstrong. Cover – Heath Ivey-Law and Elisa Armstrong. Photos – Angel (3 Fates Media)
Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was beheaded in October of 1793 after the French Revolution. Then and now the person of Marie Antoinette symbolises concentrated wealth, privilege, greed and conspicuous consumption. Plus ça change.
US playwright David Adjmi takes a sympathetic view of Marie Antoinette, presenting her as a product of her time and upbringing. Heartstring Theatre has done justice to his script, engaging strongly with its wit. The dialogue is modernised and the contemporary concerns of its characters make for delicious satire. Elisa Armstrong plays the queen, commanding great range, from languid, needy, haughty to vulnerable and eventually self-aware. The opening scenes with her ladies (Eleanor Howlett and Jessica Tanner) draw the audience right in with its timing and comic tension. The infamous ‘let them eat cake' (which Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say) is dealt with early and given to one of the ladies. Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (he who put that line into Marie’s mouth) comes up in conversation, but Queen doesn’t know who he is or why he’s important, one of several delightful paradoxes in the script.
Uneducated and married off at 14, Marie is bored and frustrated. Her husband, Louis XVI has failed to give her an heir. Gabriel Partington gives us an infuriatingly childlike Louis XVI, misguided and dependent. Heath Ivey Law is terrific as Marie’s imperious brother, Joseph, who arrives with news of their mother’s displeasure at Marie’s childlessness. Marie’s lack of concern at civil unrest and her faith in the permanence of the aristocracy is affecting; we receive everything she does or says coloured by the knowledge of her fate.
The play changes tone in the second act, with darkness intruding on Marie’s life and her increasing helplessness in the face of a turn of events she doesn’t fully comprehend. The device of talking sheep (played by various cast members), however, bringing advice to the Queen, maintains the comic light-heartedness from the first half.
The set is simple with sliding partitions suggesting corridors and halls, with lighting creating an image of prison bars. All the characters are imprisoned in one way or another, only the philosophical sheep range freely. Heartstring’s director Rachel Baring works the theme of confinement and constraint in varying and effective tones. Eleanor Howlett gives us a frightened, neglected Dauphin, the child’s innocence is particularly poignant.
The last meeting with Marie and Count Fersen (Conor Gallacher), her former lover, is disconcerting, their interaction imbued with the chill of the fact of her impending execution. He’s no longer there, nothing remains. She has now become the widow Capet.
If I had one soupçon of a quibble, it would be to do with pacing: direction might have allowed for a few contemplative moments in the rhythm to balance the breathlessness of the drama. But no matter; this is a tightly-performed, sharp and entertaining production. It’s lots of fun and the cast is excellent. Marie Antoinette is sophisticated and intelligent theatre, a history lesson with some fine humour and characterization.
Heartstring Theatre present
by David Adjmi
Directed by Rachel Baring
Venue: Northcote Town Hall | 189 High St, Northcote VIC
Dates: 5 – 15 July 2018