Ahead of the opening of the Folger’s main 15/16 season, the theatre – a beautiful, paradoxical combination of Elizabethan outdoor and indoor theatre elements – plays host in September to a visiting production by Compagnia de’Colombari, Karin Conrood’s texts&beheadings/ElizabethR. Part of Washington’s Women’s Voices Festival, Conrood’s play is a combination of archival research, storytelling and verbatim drama, aiming uniquely to tell the story of Elizabeth I in her own words.
As a showcase/advertisement for the Folger’s own collections, the production did a marvellous job of capturing the sheer range of Elizabeth’s own written traces. From letters to poems, official pronouncements to gossip, in English and Latin, Elizabeth’s time-traveling voice echoed in a range of registers. Fracturing chronology, the play shifted back and forth from her ripostes to wooers to her adolescent letters to her father, her assertions of her royal status to her prayers and fears. In keeping with the principles of the Festival, this was a life told not according to a grand narrative but made up from the non-linear traces of memory and record.
Four actors (Monique Barbee, Ayeje Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly and Cristina Spina) each played Elizabeth, taking turns to lead one each of four thematic ‘movements’, covering such aspects as ‘survival’ and ‘sovereignty’. Each movement ended with a ‘game’, a device whose rationale was unclear but which seemed to be intended to inject a forced bit of levity, whether in the reading out of insults by Elizabeth’s contemporaries or the mimed dressing of Elizabeth in her finest robes. In between, each movement foregrounded one of the actors while the others acted as narrator/chorus, giving the context for the quotations and joining in at points of key emphasis.
The overall effect was scrappy. At times (particularly those instances where each of the actors took a word each of a sentence) the speeches were clunky and fragmented. The framing narration was deliberately bathetic for the most part, modern and drily mocking, but rarely humorous in its informality. The sense of community between the four Elizabeths was sweet, suggesting the affinity of Elizabeth’s various personas and identities, yet I found that the ironic commentary rather undercut the impact of the quoted words. At other moments, the effect was sublime. All four performers were accomplished singers, and composer Gina Leishman crafted some fine four-part harmonies, setting Elizabeth’s lyrics and key sentences to echoing melodies that, especially in the climactic dressing of Elizabeth, created a layered aural texture that accorded the words beauty.
The four very different voices in the cast – the deep-voiced Feamster, the Italian-accented Spina, the wry and operatic Barbee, the commanding and sharp Francis-Kelly – not only created rich harmonies in the musical sections, but allowed for tonal variety throughout the hour-long production. Elizabeth was playful and dignified, sarcastic and bitter, and key phrases were repeated in all of these different voices. Moments of unity were punctuated by the recurring sound of a swinging axe, the percussive soundtrack to a life of associates quickly evoked and quickly dispatched. The physical staging was less impressive than the sound design, with four high-backed chairs moved to act as thrones or a screen, but Peter Ksanda’s lighting design allowed for distinctive environments, notably a prayer scene bathed in red.
As an experiment in staging non-performative Elizabethan writing, texts&beheadings:ElizabethR was uneven but beautifully performed, especially when it allowed Elizabeth’s voice to speak for itself. Shorn of some of the artifice (the games, the alternating words) it would have been better still. When it stayed still and allowed the word to be simply spoken, the production cut through the accrued biography of centuries and found resonance in words that located the human within the myth.