Does Marie Antoinette need redeeming in the eyes of history? Is our current perception of the Austrian child-bride turned symbol of decadence and classism fair, or rooted in misogyny? How you answer these questions will colour how much you enjoy Heartstring Theatre’s latest production, David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette tells the story of the famous French queen, so removed from the reality of the suffering of her subjects that she built a peasant village to play in, as she struggles against the life she was born into and the revolution that rapidly ended her rule. Performed by Elisa Armstrong, Jessica Tanner, Eleanor Howlett, Heath Ivey-Law, Gabriel Partington, and Conor Gallacher, and directed by Rachel Baring, Marie Antoinette is the sophomore production from Heartstring Theatre. While the play seeks to explore themes of femininity, class and the threat of over-entertainment, it falls short of doing anything more than presenting them.
A great deal of the issues with this play lie within Adjmi’s script. Adjmi’s work often centres and explores feminine shallowness. He’s a polarising writer, with critics and audiences tending to react strongly to productions of his plays. Marie Antoinette, as a subject, seems a natural fit. Yet, she isn’t.
The central issue is that Marie Antoinette remains an empty character. It’s not just that her motivations are murky – that’s to be expected, given her portrayal as a woman not even given the tools to grasp her own situation, let alone alter it. It’s that there is nothing else, no other backbone to carry this confused queen’s story towards something resembling a point.
It’s a pity, because the undercurrent of themes in Marie Antoinette are frustratingly relevant today, as surface-level equality papers a lack of true equity. Yet the play itself doesn’t interrogate or engage with those themes – instead it casts Marie Antoinette’s womanhood as more important than her class. The revolutionaries are given slim voice, and they have to be in order for Antoinette to be successfully cast as a victim; any true contrast of the protagonist against how the working class were faring, let alone how working class women were treated, would quickly reveal why she was executed in the first place. Sure – Marie Antoinette is the production of the system into which she was born, and as a woman in an intensely patriarchal society she had little control over her circumstances more generally. But Marie Antoinette does not do a convincing job of presenting her as a sympathetic figure, let alone one worthy of redemption. In trying to paint her as an illiterate, uncomprehending victim of circumstance, the play diminishes Antoinette’s agency, something that Elisa Armstrong constantly struggles against.
It doesn’t help that the bulk of Adjmi’s dialogue is simply exposition, a roulette wheel of descriptions of events or actions not shown on stage, Antoinette’s internal monologue, and pure statement of historical fact. As a consequence, the scenes themselves have very little action, leaving Armstrong and co. to often just state things at each other rather than converse in any meaningful sense.
Elisa Armstrong’s acting exacerbates all these issues. In an attempt to present both regally and childishly, as a queen who flouts the rules and expectations of her station, Armstrong speaks in a stilted rhythm that distracts from the actual words she’s saying, clanking against the modern language of the script, designed to invoke current Marie Antoinette equivalents. Her movements also oscillate between these two positions, from prim to flamboyant with little to connect the two, let alone demonstrate some sort of inner conflict.
It seems like every actor is attempting to dollop large amounts of melodrama across the stage, which would suit the material if only someone had guided them as to what that melodrama should look and sound like. Why does only one member of the aristocracy (Louis) speak with a British accent? Why, when Connor Gallacher turns the charm up as Swedish Count Axel Fersen does Armstrong continue to stilt her way across the stage, foreclosing on any chemistry between the two? Why are all the potentially comedic moments played with such subservience to the supposed tragedy?
Eloise Kent’s set and costume design are clever abstractions of Marie Antoinette’s decadence, and occasionally John Collopy’s lighting design provides some stark, interesting visuals. However the transitions are poorly timed, with lighting cues switched while actors are still halfway off stage and doors left swinging as a new scene commences.
The sheep’s re-occurring appearances as Marie Antoinette’s confidant/warning bell could have been genuinely funny, but lazy writing means that the outright statements the sheep makes hamper each actor’s best attempts to really draw comedy from the role. In a similar vein, the sheep’s final appearance towards the end of the play is well-orchestrated and tense. It would almost have been affecting if the audience were engaged in the emotional stakes of the play.
Howlett and Tanner are the saving grace of this production. The two actors play a number of roles, including Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting, her son, and the sheep. It is their moments – the sly looks and hand-holding to protect against the Queen’s wrath in the opening scene, the quick expressions of discomfort and fear while practicing archery – that actually feel real and manage to balance the play’s melodrama with character. As Antoinette’s son, Howlett seizes on the chance to alter her physicality and use the stage space available to her, playing with levels and movements in a way that reflects the boy’s slow, childlike realisations of the situation unfolding around him. These moments show what the production, even hamstrung by Adjmi’s script, could have been – a balance between farce and melancholy. In the absence of a different script entirely, this play can never be a sympathetic portrait of a woman that also manages to be damning indictment of the ruling class.
It should be noted that this production has been polarising too, as the critical responses have all been at either end of the spectrum (with the Age‘s Cameron Woodhead giving it 1.5 stars and theatrepeople.com.au‘s Ellen Burgin giving it 4). Let’s hope the next production from Heartstring Theatre achieves the same acclaim as their previous, Green Room Award nominated production Coriolanus did.
Marie Antoinette is on at the Northcote Town Hall at 7.30pm until 15 July 2018. Tickets are available from the Heartstring Theatre website.