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.
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.
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.