Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: theatre review

Review: making music from murder – Lizzie, The Musical

Much has been written about the rise in dark tourism, where we visit historic sites that were once associated with crime and punishment.

From former prisons to the homes of past murderers, it seems we can’t get enough of imagining ourselves in the lives of past convicts and criminals, murderers and monsters.

I’m one of these people; I’m fascinated by these sites, and studying how people in the past lived and were punished by visiting those places where they resided.

And it’s undeniable that we are fascinated with murder not only as it is presented in these tourism sites, but in other forms too. Jack The Ripper, of course, has lent itself to tours and recreations; but what about a musical about a real-life murderer? Would we feel less comfortable about a singalong featuring a real case?

if you’re quick, you can find out. Lizzie, a musical about a notorious American double murder, is currently showing at the intimate Greenwich Theatre in London. Originating in Denmark, but having also played in the US, it is on a limited season in the capital, and is well worth a trip.

Lizzie Borden, photographed around two years prior to the murders

It is set in a scorchingly hot August in 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, where 32-year-old Lizzie Borden and her older sister Emma live with their frugal father, Andrew, and his second wife (their stepmother), Abby.

The tale itself is well-known; one morning, someone attacks Andrew and Abby with an axe, murdering them both. Lizzie is the prime suspect, but acquitted at trial, returning to live in the locality until her death in 1927.

The case was such a horrific one, and captured the attention of the public and press, to the extent that the famous rhyme is still repeated today:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

So how does a musical attempt to show the murders, and cover Lizzie’s motives and guilt? Not in a conventional way, it has to be said. This is basically a punk rock musical, starring four women, who play Lizzie, Emma, their maid, Irish Bridget, and Lizzie’s friend Alice (presented here as her lesbian lover – various theories have been presented over the years to suggest that Lizzie and Alice were more than just friends). So it’s loud and furious; irreverent and aimed clearly at a modern audience.

But it is also rooted in historical fact. Lizzie and Emma are concerned that their stepmother only married their father for his money; Andrew Borden kills the pigeons in his barn with an axe, ignoring the fact that Lizzie has befriended them, thereby greatly upsetting her. The claustrophobia of late 19th century life for single women is portrayed well; one senses Lizzie’s  frustration with her life and the limited options open to her.

It is also significant, perhaps, that the four characters are all female, representing Lizzie’s small circle of confidantes, and that the murder victims are largely absent from the story (and even when they do appear, it is not in the form that you might expect). This is very much about putting Lizzie and her life at centre-stage; but it creates a picture of four strong women trying to make their way in a patriarchal society.

Lizzie Borden’s house in Fall River, where her father and stepmother were killed

There are two acts; in the first, the women are all in fairly conventional 1890s dress, thus representing the outward conventionality of their lives, until the moment that closes the act – the sudden violence of the two deaths.

After the interval, there is freedom, of sorts, from convention, and thus the girls are now in gaudy burlesque fashions, their hair a riot of colour and styles, singing profanities, screaming. Lizzie’s trial is presented as a trial of four people, as the women line up behind their microphones to give evidence – before the “Not guilty” verdict is shouted out (appearing in large scrawled letters behind them at the same time).

The choreography, lighting and design of the show are great here, and Bjørg Gamst (Lizzie), Eden Espinosa (Emma), Bleu Woodward (Alice) and Jodie Jacobs (Bridget) put their all into their roles, singing with gusto and panache.

Obviously, a musical has to simplify events and characters. Lizzie turns the maid into a stock Irish comedy character, and the main character loses the complexity she looked like having in the first half once her father and stepmother are dead.

But overall, it’s an imaginative approach to depicting not only a famous crime, but also the life of the woman who is still widely believed – despite the verdict of her jury – to have killed two in that hot little house in Massachusetts over a century ago.

Lizzie continues at Greenwich Theatre until 12 March – buy tickets here. The musical’s UK website is here.

The Roaring Girl: How the RSC failed to convince me that Moll Cutpurse was a Victorian drag king

I went to see the RSC’s The Roaring Girl, directed by Jo Davies, recently – and was rather unimpressed by its assertion that this Jacobean play – and petty criminal heroine – was more about Victorian gender-bending than the society in which it was originally set.

Moll Cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse was a 17th century pickpocket, an infamous member of the London underworld, a woman who revelled in her reputation, swearing, smoking a pipe, and being the subject of plays even within her own lifetime.

She undoubtedly challenged gender conventions of the time, and was punished for it, being charged with dressing indecently in 1611 and having to do penance a year later for ‘evil living’. She accepted mens’ bets to dress as a man, acted as a pimp, and was infamous for her actions.

Yet she was also seen as rather a glamorous creature. She performed in public to eager audiences, and the fact that plays were written about her suggests that the public wanted to hear and see more of her.

She has become a larger than life figure, mythologised to the extent that it is no longer known what is real and what is fiction. But she remains very much of her time – a Jacobean woman who lived life on her own terms.

One of the most famous plays written about Moll is Dekker and Middleston’s The Roaring Girl, written in the first decade of the 17th century, while Moll was still in her 20s. The title derives from the ‘roaring boy’, a contemporary slang term for men who partied, fought, and carried out petty crimes.

Moll is depicted as an object of horror to the older characters, but is also depicted with sympathy – it is assumed that because she is unconventional, she must be a whore; Moll puts the character of Laxton, who attempts to pay her for sex, in his place about this.

She also admits to Sebastian that she is uninterested in sex and has no intention of marrying. She also later states her aim of protecting the innocent from crime due to her insight into the criminal class.

Moll is clearly seen as a morally superior woman to the more socially acceptable Prudence Gallipot, the apothecary’s wife, who is carrying on an affair with Laxton, and who lies to her husband in order to get money for her lover.

To me, Moll and The Roaring Girl is of its time. It shows how 17th century women could defy gender stereotypes and be strong, independent women who challenged convention. She is no caricature, but a feisty individual who survives as she can.

Yet the RSC has decided otherwise. Their production of The Roaring Girl turns Moll into a fey cross-dresser, mimicking male behaviour – including the way she walks and sits – with a few nods to lesbianism.

But also, they’ve decided that Moll’s life in Jacobean England is just not sexy or relevant enough, and so have decided to make her a Victorian heroine, and a caricature of one at that.

This Roaring Girl is all about Victorian ideals of femininity and how Moll rejects those ideals, ripping off her boned bustle to reveal trousers, and strutting around the men in their bowler hats and plaid jackets. The programme stresses the Victorian context of their production, complete with a timeline of 19th century history.

But Moll is not Victorian, and Victorian society is not Jacobean society. Moll is not universal, she does not transcend the centuries. The reaction to her actions was not unmitigated horror, a fear of her making men look weak and insipid; she was a figure of interest, as shown by the plays written in her lifetime and the performances she put on.

Her offences were typical of her period, and carried out during a time when execution was a real threat to even petty thieves. By the 1890s – when this production is set – that fear had rescinded due to Victorian sensibilities over the effectiveness of hanging (where executions were carried out far less, particularly if you were female, and in Britain, held in private post-1868).

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny

And Moll was no camp cross-dresser. She disguised herself for bets, or to gain some purpose, and she was not unique in pre-Victorian times – look at the likes of Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the 18th century, for example.

She was not surrounded by meek women carrying parasols (as she is in the RSC production). She was a complex character, a petty criminal, an extrovert – not a pariah or an object of derision but of interest and excitement.

She showed how Jacobean society included a variety of people, and how women could be surprisingly modern.

Perhaps the problem lies more in how Jacobean society is perceived today. Victorians are more sexy, more immediate to audiences.

We relate to them more, because they are more recent, because we have photographs showing what they looked like, diaries and books in abundance from those living in the era. Our knowledge of the 17th century requires more help, more research – it is more shadowy.

And yet, perhaps the RSC recognised that its depiction of Moll as a Victorian lady challenging stereotypes of the submissive woman was difficult to justify, and hence its odd inclusion of rock music, breakdancing, characters playing electric guitars and rapping.

I particularly objected to the rapping – for the characters stated that they were actually ‘canting’. Canting was the slang used by thieves, such as the word ‘frummagemm’d’ to denote being hanged. I recognised that the director was trying to show how different sections of society develop a type of communication that gives them a sense of identity – but rap?! In a Victorian setting?

But just as it makes no sense to include breakdancing randomly into a Victorian setting, it also makes no sense to put Moll into such a setting, either.

I can’t do better than to quote the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, who described the moden touches as making a ‘mockery’ of the production’s already ‘unnecessary Victorian setting’ and the Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings who pointed out that the relocation to the late Victorian era was ‘to no great advantage’.

I was relieved that critics had felt the same way as I; it is not necessary to shoehorn events from earlier into the Victorian era.

Not everything is timeless, and sometimes it’s OK to say that women – criminal women, cross-dressing women, or just, say, WOMEN in general – in the 17th century were complex, interesting, and fascinating, and don’t need to be turned into Victorians to make them so.

For my review of Arden of Faversham, another of the RSC’s crime-related productions in its Roaring Girl season, click here.

Arden of Faversham: plotting and petty treason at the RSC

Alice Arden (Sharon Small) and her lover, Mosby (Keir Charles)

Alice Arden (Sharon Small) and her lover, Mosby (Keir Charles)

“What, groans thou? Nay then, give me the weapon. Take this for hind’ring Mosby’s love and mine.” (Arden of Faversham, xiv, 237-238)

Arden of Faversham is a strange title for a play. It doesn’t give you much of an idea of what the play is about; you might expect a comedy of manners, perhaps, or a dull play about Kentish town life.

But, in fact, Arden of Faversham is a play about crime and murder with mystery even in its own origins and authorship, and it is a valuable means of learning about crime and punishment in Elizabethan England.

The RSC is currently performing Arden of Faversham in Stratford, and I went to see it last weekend – on a whim, fancying a night out at one of my local theatres.

I had never heard of it and the title didn’t sound particularly attractive. But it had, in its favour, the fact that it was part of the RSC’s Roaring Girl season (I’m going to see The Roaring Girl itself in the summer, and can’t wait), and it wasn’t Shakespeare.

I’m a great fan of the non-Shakespearean work the RSC puts on, but not a great fan of Shakespeare himself, having studied him almost to death at school and university.

It was the best play-on-a-whim I have seen for a long time. It revolves around Alice Arden, unhappily married to Thomas, an entrepreneur of his time (the mid-16th century) who is also somewhat obsessed with his business, to the detriment of his marriage. Alice finds comfort elsewhere, in the arms of Thomas Mosby, but resents having to keep this liaison secret. She and Mosby plot to kill Thomas Arden of Faversham.

Arden (Ian Redford) and his wife Alice (Sharon Small)

Arden (Ian Redford) and his wife Alice (Sharon Small)

The play is a dark comedy, with Alice and Mosby recruiting assassins who fail – due to fights, fog and incompetence – to carry out the murder.

I won’t give the exact method away, but eventually, Arden is killed, his wife proving herself to be a better murderer than the paid ‘professionals’.

The most fascinating part of the play is the fact that it is based on a real event, and, despite the contemporary setting that the RSC’s production is given, the audience can get an insight into the gendered nature of punishment in Elizabethan England.

Thomas Mosby was hanged in London for his part in Arden’s death; but Alice, convicted of petty treason (the murder of a husband by a wife being regarded as a more heinous offence than that of a wife by a husband), was burned at the stake in Canterbury. Her fate was decided by the Privy Council – of which her stepfather was a member.

Alice Arden, as she is portrayed by Sharon Small in the RSC production, is a feisty, independent woman, who refuses to accept life in an unhappy marriage. She is not a submissive female; she plots and schemes and proves herself to be a stronger individual than those men who are supposed to be able to kill her husband.When they fail, she steps in and succeeds.

Arden of Faversham has farcical elements – but it is the men who provide much of the farce. They are weak, dithering creatures.

It is Alice who is the brains, and she inveigles those around her to march to her tune. She is just one of the women in history who have killed; but she kills because she cannot see any other way to be with a man who is more ‘her’ than the socially acceptable husband she married.

Sharon Small as Alice Arden

Sharon Small as Alice Arden

The depiction of the sexes in this play – whose authorship is not known, although there are apparent digs or at least nods towards Shakespeare in it – turns the kind of history I was taught in school on its head.

It is not a feeble romance, or an idealised portrait of life in Elizabethan England. It is a tale of love, crime and punishment – full of strained emotions and mess, thus reflected the realities of life in a broken marriage, where divorce is not possible.

The RSC’s production reflects the gap between ‘normal’ life – the conveyor belt mundanity of working life experienced by Arden’s employees (churning out ‘lucky cats’ by the cattery-full and going mad in their few minutes’ break) – and the mounting hysteria of Alice’s double life, by setting the play in a recognisably ordinary present day whilst maintaining the 16th century style of dialogue.

It doesn’t jar; it simply reflects that this is reality, claustrophobic and boring, yet also strange – full of plots and secrets.

Arden of Faversham continues at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, until 2 October.

For a good discussion of the play, see Frances E Dolan’s Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (Cornell, 1994) Photos by Manuel Harlan, and reproduced with permission courtesy of the RSC.

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