Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Game of thrones… Skin Deep, The Lion and Unicorn, Camden Fringe Festival

Ashley Winter and Clementine Mills
Blue blood murderers – who makes them? Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed or Báthory Erzsébet for short was one of the most powerful women in sixteenth century Hungary and probably one of the most prolific serial killers in history. She is alleged to have killed around 600 young women and ended her days rotting in a windowless cell after being tried and found guilty.

Lee Anderson’s play trues to find some possible reason for her psychotic spree, the legend of which has inspired folklore for centuries: The Blood Countess… Countess Dracula… whether it was 80 or 300 or 650, the evidence is compelling that this woman liked to kill.

Is mass murder a natural adjunct to feudal society? How much did Erzsébet kill out of duty and how much, after her first taste of untimely death, was for political rather than pleasurable ends… Either way it’s horrific.

Hanna Rohtla and Lilian Tsang
This is a lot to take on in a sixty minute play and I’m not sure that the narrative explains its way with total success but what it does do is convey the barren horror of the psychotic existence. Even though the constraints of position and power are no excuse for slaughter, there is no doubt that death played a major part in the maintenance of political position. The organised murders of state through war and justice system don’t necessarily make every Lord and Lady psychopaths but where do you draw the line between killings?

Erzsébet (an impressively-expressive Ashley Winter, complete with Queen Cercei Lannister cropped blonde hair… Ashley Winterfell!) is first seen aged 11 playing alongside the boys - Gyorgy (Matthew Wellard) and Stefan (Mike Archer) as they practice swordplay. There’s teasing and brave talk of the war with the Turks, Erzsébet has captured a baby rabbit and the boys threaten to crush it: you can’t fight and be a ruler if you’re worried about small animals.

It’s a brutal world and you need to be more brutal to survive…

Ashley Winter's Erzsébet feels the contraints of power...
Erzsébet befriends a servant girl, Lucie (Clementine Mills) and the two become close from that point on, another pet or something more?

The affairs of state mean that Erzsébet becomes betrothed to Ferenc Nádasdy (Oscar Scott-White), the son of Baron Tamás Nádasdy de Nádasd et Fogarasföld wiki-parently… Ferenc is a warrior and will go on to fight the Turks but he refuses to take his bride with him to the front even though she is desparate to go.

Ferenc’s mother, Ursula (Rachel August) tries to mould her daughter-in-law but Erzsébet refuses to bend slapping one of the ladies in waiting, Zsofi (Lilian Tsang). Ursula responds by sticking a pin into Lucie’s arm: another lesson in brutality, you damage my “property” and I respond to yours.

This atmosphere of ruthlessness married to responsibility is intercut with disturbing physical interludes as the servant girls grab their throats and writhe in agony as the lights go dim and strange music swirls… there’s a sickly sense of doom percolating through these moments…

One of the wedding guests is a sexual sophisticate from Vienna, Darvulia (Hanna Rohtla, dressed appropriately...) who arranges a party for the girls and tries to educate Erzsébet in the art of cruelty…she’s disappointed when the young woman seems to be holding back but… Erzsébet almost kills Zsofi by constricting her in a corset and Ursula responds by having Lucie beaten: it’s a war fought by proxy through their servants… for her own good Erzsébet needs to take drastic – horrific – action.

Skin Deep is unsettling, visceral and uncanny but I’m not sure we get from A to Z in terms of how Erzsébet becomes a serial killer. Not all killings of state are driven by necessity or by pleasure but the difference may be academic in certain circumstances. Life was cheaper in 1600 but Erzsébet’s excesses ultimately brought her down… It would be nice to think that moral outrage motivated her prosecutors but maybe she just didn’t form the right alliances?

Skin Deep was showing as part of the Camden Fringe Festival and is produced by the Attila Theatre company who “…strive to create theatre that gets to grips with popular culture, using dark, piercing humour and a messy yet distinctive visual style. … drawn to stories about women that are set within stereotypically masculine realms.” For further information visit their website.

The Lion and Unicorn is also an excellent venue, hidden quietly in the gentile streets of Kentish Town!

Ithankyou Rating ***

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