Becoming the Courtesan
Written and Performed by Jamie Burgess & Karen Anslow
Directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
10 – 17 January 2009
Becoming the Courtesan is the story of one long evening in some indistinct 17th or 18th century past as conceited rich kid Lorenzo (Burgess) pays a visit to the acclaimed and reviled courtesan La Cochineal (Anslow) to help him overcome his hidden homosexuality and give his family an heir. But, dramatic structure being what it is, not all goes to plan and the night slowly becomes one of personal revelation, brief partial nudity and song.
Courtesan exhibits all the major advantages and very few of the disadvantages of the devised duologue format which seems to be making a bit of a comeback with this beginning this year at Bats after the ceaselessly genius Blinkers and Spurs helped end the last. For instance, the play has strikingly little actual plot as per the form, but it turns this into a vast strength, making up what it lacks in narrative with extensive soul searching and revelation from these two perfectly formed characters in performance. The characters being written by their actors – there have been indications that the co-writing of Courtesan was simply each of the performers writing their own lines – creates a very tangible sense of connection and inhabitation between performer and character. Which is especially impressive when you consider how much the characters themselves are playing roles, an act very hard to express for some actors done with style and aplomb here. However, a more negative symptom of the play having been written by the performers for themselves is that sometimes the dialogue boils down to little more than the disconnected exchange of monologues but this only happens rarely. Also, it must be noted that Courtesan has an odd habit of when it is called upon to express emotions on a large scale it devolves down to little more than hammy melodrama, but this is far from a deal-breaker with the play and fixing it would really only necessitate a few quick snips to the script.
On the technical side Courtesan is little less than decadent perfection. Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s direction is delightfully assured, keeping up the pace when it threatens to drag and creating beautiful and apt images – faces and forms emerging from the curtained set being of particular brilliance. The oddly uncredited stage design of Lynchian hanging red curtains and delicate silks works perfectly in sync with Paul Jenden’s sumptuous heightened historical costumes and Rosie Olsen’s lucid lighting. So, often a piece as delicately and deliciously designed as this can feel somewhat frozen and lifeless. A dead painting sitting in the theatre demanding to be praised on a superficial level and nothing else. Not here though, with Jenden’s dramaturgy and Rutherford’s direction integrating all aspects wonderfully everything supporting everything else. No one design element dictating or defying all the others – a rare occurrence in today’s theatre. Kudos to that.
No review of Courtesan would be complete without a mention of Jamie Burgess’ songs. An interesting blend of past and present, they fit perfectly within the piece extending out the play into wider themes of love and gender and family and how controlling all three of those things are. Wonderfully these songs buck the trend by not being Brechtian breaks in the play but the characters themselves singing – even if only as a sung internal monologue – creating a great sense of flow between the singing and the acting. There were however issues with the performers’ singing being swamped by the soundtrack that made the songs at points hard to follow.
If I was to choose one word to describe Becoming the Courtesan it would be confident. The show sits upon its stage totally sure of itself. Almost as if it has emerged fully formed from some odd unseen theatre womb. This aching sureness of self is present in almost every aspect of the production from its somewhat loquacious programme to Jamie Burgess’ cross-cultural musical score. This confidence sometimes even borders on smugness, which is an odd attitude to feel from a play and may not be to everyone’s taste. Myself, I really liked it. Really, really liked it. With only the aforementioned drops into melodrama and monologueing and some slightly questionable politics – the games it plays with gender roles and cliches never seem to come to any true conclusion, at least, thematically – stopping me truly loving it. But, all in all, an amazing start to the theatrical year.