‘It must have been extraordinary’: the play inspired by the first actresses of English theater | Edinburgh Festival 2022

On December 8, 1660, crowds gathered in Vere Street, near Oxford Street in London, where the King’s Company performed Othello. The night was cold and windy, the sky was preparing for a storm. For the first time in the history of English professional theatre, a woman took the stage.

“It must have been extraordinary,” says Eve Pearson-Wright, of husband-and-wife company Long Lane Theatre. His new production, L’Actrice, explores the era. “These women – who lived through the Puritan era – suddenly see one of their own, up there on stage, confronting the men.”

Considered immoral and immodest, London’s theaters were closed by the Long Parliament in 1642, just after the outbreak of the English Civil War. They were reopened by Charles II in 1660, when two men were given permission to produce shows. One was William Davenant, poet and playwright, the other Thomas Killigrew, playwright and theater manager, who introduced Othello on Vere Street. “In the Puritan days, Killigrew was in France, where they had actresses,” says Andrew Pearson-Wright, the other half of the Long Lane Theatre. “He had to see what having women on stage could add to a story.”

A portrait of Margaret ‘Peg’ Hughes. Photography: Heritage Images/Getty Images

On that December night, as strong gusts blew across the thatch of nearby roofs, the woman on stage played Desdemona. But the finer details of his performance are lost. While historians tend to agree that this is the earliest recorded date a woman acted professionally, there is no consensus on who she was.

Initial research for the piece led the Pearson-Wrights to Margaret “Peg” Hughes. “She was a Nell Gwyn-type figure, five years before Gwyn,” Andrew explains. “She was glamorous and well-painted and had an affair with the king’s cousin. She had almost become this celebrity.

When Andrew started writing a play about the trailblazer, he focused on Hughes, with Eve playing the part. But, diving deeper, they came across Anne Marshall, the daughter of a chaplain, who a handful of scholars say played the part instead. “She felt to me like an actor’s actor, from the roles she played and the way she was viewed and written,” he says. “His sister became an actress, she married an actor – it was like she was rooted in the craft.”

Hughes and Marshall played around the same time, but Andrew says historians don’t know who was the first. In The Actress, Long Lane Theater attempted to fill in the gaps. In their story, Marshall, a working-class woman who is portrayed less well and less often, is pitted by the show’s producer against Hughes, a confident, glamorous woman more in tune with what the audience (male ) want to see.

The public’s point of view was central. For a woman of the 17th century, being an actress did not only consist in choosing an atypical career; it was about your place in society and how you wanted to be seen. Acting work and sex work were inextricably linked; women who acted were ogled and scorned.

“During the restoration period, the public would have a choice,” says Andrew. “They could watch the show up front or pay to sit in the locker room and watch the women change. They were made to be watched and displayed. The actresses’ overtly sexualized role seems relevant today, Eve says: “We continue to emphasize in the play that it’s the men who decide which women are remembered.”

The pair have experience creating theatrical stories that celebrate the underdog from historical moments. In 2018 they traveled to Edinburgh and then visited The Giant Killers, a show about a factory workers football team in the 1870s when the game was only played by the upper classes. They are reviving The Giant Killers on the sidelines this year, alongside The Actress and a children’s show, Arthur’s Ani-Magination. To bring the three shows to the fringe, they formed a repertoire theater of seven actors.

Doing representative theater has long been a dream of Andrew. As a child, he visited his grandparents every summer in Pitlochry, Perthshire, and went to the theater to watch the company perform. “That’s where I fell in love with acting,” he says. “It allows actors to take on roles that you didn’t know were in their lineup.” It also makes good business sense, allowing them to stay in one place longer, with more to offer a theater and an audience. Eve says, “When you work on a play, you become family with the cast, and then you disappear. The idea of ​​creating a representative is that we can develop it more and stay with them longer.

That fun of collaboration is woven into the way they tell this story of the 17th century drama. Rather than pitting Hughes and Marshall against each other, The Actress is an ode to both women. “It would have been so easy for them to give up,” says Eve. “There were men who didn’t want to work with them, producers who wanted to exploit them. But they didn’t give up. I like to imagine that they fought for these opportunities. It’s in the nature of an actor to do that. And in doing so – with tenacity – they not only made a name for themselves; they made a life for others.

The actress is at Underbelly, Bristo Square, until August 29

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