Stage Door Review

Mad Madge

Sunday, April 14, 2024


by Rose Napoli, directed by Andrea Donaldson

Nightwood Theatre with VideoCabaret, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West, Toronto

April 11-21, 2024

Margaret: “Ambition before love”

Margaret Cavendish (1623-73) certainly deserves to be the subject of a play. She was a philosopher, scientist and writer of poetry, fiction and essays and, unusual for a woman of the period, published her works under her own name. Rose Napoli has written and stars in Mad Madge, a play about Cavendish, now receiving its world premiere by Nightwood Theatre in association with VideoCabaret. The play is often very funny, but it is also extremely uneven in tone and style, likely because Napoli has not settled on which of the myriad aspects of this remarkable woman and her importance she wants for her focus.

Cavendish is controversial as a feminist icon. She wrote treatises and plays against the institution of marriage, and yet she fell in love and married. She professes the equality of the sexes but not equality in society. She remained an ardent monarchist and wrote a treatise on the proper behaviour of servants. Even though she wrote several works that have now made her famous, she still she craved fame in her own lifetime and staged many stunts to achieve that end. In 1667 for the opening of a play by her husband, she wore a gown she designed in the Minoan style with a décolleté that completely exposed her breasts, causing there to be more comments about her gown than his play.

Napoli’s play does deal with Margaret as a woman of contradictions. She has Margaret state when just a child that what she wants most in life is to be famous. When she is older and has publicly sworn off marriage as a hindrance to a woman’s self-realization, her motto becomes “Ambition before love”. Shortly after this she meets William Cavendish, whom she marries three years later. Napoli’s Margaret veers between writing important works like The Blazing World (1666), often counted as one the first science fiction novels, and pulling stunts like her Minoan gown appearance or applying to the invitation-only Royal Society. Napoli’s scenes between Margaret and William are the best in the play – funny, tender, even moving – because they successfully imagine how real people might cope with the restrictions the historical period they lived in would enforce.

Unfortunately, Napoli wants to use the story of Margaret Cavendish for several other purposes. One is to satirize a Masterpiece Theatre style of history telling by consciously using contemporary language and by exaggerating all the characters who are not William. This includes her poverty-stricken mother who needs Margaret to marry well to save the family and Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, who flees to France after her husband’s execution in 1649. Margaret will not marry the man her mother has chosen, but she does join the Queen’s household. Napoli portrays the Queen as threatening everyone with instant death who displeases her.

Napoli also wants to satirize the grossly misogynist views of the men of the time by turning historical figures such as Samuel Pepys and Margaret’s own brother John into baleful villains. As if this were not enough, Napoli also wants to satirize the contemporary pursuit of fame through Margaret’s example. Thus, in the play Margaret goes on book tours to promote her works and appears on a 17th-century television talk show where a nasty host grills her about her motives for seeking fame.

Not only is Napoli trying to do too much at one time but she undermines her own project, that is assuming that making the historical Margaret Cavendish better known is her object. The satirical sections of the play make about three-fourths of the total. Yet, satire only works when an audience knows what is being satirized. For the vast majority of Napoli’s audience Cavendish and exiled court of Henrietta Maria will be complete unknowns. To compensate for this Napoli has to make the satirical scenes funny by making them absurd and overblown. They thus turn not into a satire of her subject matter but of acting itself and of historical drama in general.

This sort of compensation through absurdity applies to Margaret’s own self-narration. Napoli has Margaret basically claim from the very start that the only way a woman of no education or money could get herself noticed in the 17th century was by baring her breasts. Yet, Napoli also wants us to know that Cavendish is an early modern figure worth knowing because of all the remarkable writing she did. Exploring why a brilliant woman would also be so obsessed with achieving fame in her lifetime would be a fascinating subject for a play. We see in the Margaret-William episodes what such a play might be like. It’s really too bad that Napoli thinks she has to make this story raucously funny by burying its most interesting part in a heap of nonsense.

Napoli says in her Playwright’s Note that “What you are about to see is not wholly inaccurate. But close”. She is correct since she has changed innumerable key historical aspects of Margert’s life. For example, Margaret’s family was not poor at the time Napoli depicts. Margaret was not “uneducated” as per Napoli but was self-educated although she had tutors. Margaret did not have to work her way up from loo attendant to lady-in-waiting under Henrietta Maria but was taken on as a maid of honour from the start, albeit without her mother’s permission. Napoli has Margaret claims she knows nothing about science or even what “science” is, yet Margaret is famous for being one of the first women to write about science in authoring six books about natural philosophy. Neither Margaret not the Queen had anything to do with William becoming Duke of Newcastle. He was already Earl of Newcastle when he first met Margaret and promoted to Duke in 1665 by Charles II, Henrietta’s son.

The question then becomes why Napoli has written a play about Cavendish at all if she has altered most of the central facts of her life. The play thus becomes a fantasy on themes suggested by the life of Margaret Cavendish rather than any real attempt to understand why a woman with such a keen intellect should come to be known as “Mad Madge”. This would explain why the vast majority of the play is written and acted in a wildly exaggerated style.

Director Andrea Donaldson directs the play as it is written and does nothing to tone down the fantasy scenes to suit the more realistic scenes. In fact, she seems to encourage the actors to go as far over the top as they can. This is not a help in the echoey acoustic of the Franco Boni Theatre in The Theatre Centre, especially when it is configured in the round as in this case. The louder actors speak the more likely their words get lost in reverberations. I became tired of missing out on the final words of so many lines. When actors ceased shouting and spoke at a more moderate volume, their words were clear.

It is a pity that one of the main shouters is Napoli herself as Margaret. Only in her quieter moments with William, with the Queen and with Margaret’s brother Thomas do we hear or care about what she is saying. Napoli certainly projects Margaret’s wildness and ferocious ambition, but it is a relief when Napoli shows us that Margaret has a more sensitive, inward side to her personality when she meets William. The real Margaret Cavendish diagnosed herself as suffering from melancholia. Nothing like that appears in Napoli’s characterization where anger, spite and calculation seem to be Margaret’s principal traits.

Napoli’s William Cavendish is a musketeer, not a nobleman. Yet Karl Ang gives William an air of nobility that makes William contrast with the crassness and foolishness of all the other characters in the play. Ang is not interested in rushing his speech or shouting and as a result everything comes across as measured and clearly thought through. Ang and Napoli show that William’s stability of personality and faith in Margaret is just what Margaret needs in her world, while Margaret’s vitality and imagination is just what the rather staid William needs to enjoy life more fully. It is a beautifully drawn relationship that leads Napoli’s Margaret to an important understanding of herself.

Sadly, this fascinating centre to the story is surrounded by a lot of noise. One of the more acceptable sources of this noise is the Henrietta Maria of Nancy Palk. Though written as if Henriette were the historical antecedent of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, Henrietta is the only character who undergoes a significant change of personality. Palk begins playing the Queen as a cartoonish tyrant but gradually details how she mellows into a real person. Palk also skillfully distinguishes the Queen from the other two characters she plays – Margaret’s innocent little sister Pye (although Margaret was, in fact, the youngest child) and the glaring male chauvinist Samuel Pepys.

Palk knows how to project her low voice and so is easily heard. That is not always the case with the others. This includes, sad to say, Izad Etemadi, who is one of the funniest comic performers in Canada. Given the gender-blind casting he has no need to shave off his beard to play his two female roles. One is Margaret’s sanctimonious mother Elizabeth, who always carries out the duty she thinks she should be doing while keeping an eye out as how she is being perceived. It’s so cleverly done one can almost forgive him for shouting. The same is true of his other role as Judy, one of Henrietta’s fictional ladies-in-waiting. It is very funny how dumb he makes the poor woman look who sometimes gets so confused that she agrees with Margaret when she should be opposing her.

Wayne Burns plays both Margaret’s young brother Thomas and Judy equally fictional companion Trudy. Burns makes Thomas so loud and so effeminate that his performance as Thomas is not all that different from his performance as Trudy except that Thomas likes Margaret and Trudy does not. Where Burns really transforms himself is as the eminent scientist Robert Hooke, portrayed as a pants-wetting simpleton, who, unfortunately, is given almost nothing to say.

Farhang Ghajar makes Margaret’s older brother John so mean that one almost expects him to twirl his moustache. As the Queen’s attendant Dycker, Ghajar has little to do but enter, say noting and exit. Where he shines is as the reptilian host of the talk show on the 17th-Century News channel, whose object in his live interviews is to publicly embarrass his guests.

The design team for the show is listed as Astrid Jansen, Abby Esteireiro and Merle Harley. They do a fine job of recreating 17th-century costume in simple ways. Their real triumph in in their wigs which make no attempt to look like real wigs of the period except in their general outline. In place of human or animal hair, the team uses what seems to be shreds of rags braided and glued into shape. The wig for Henrietta Maria has woven in the little off-kilter Santos crown she wears.

Napoli says in her Playwright’s Note that she was inspired by Margaret’s story to write a play about “female rage”. Strangely, however, the Margaret-William relationship turned into something completely different, a charming romantic comedy, while all the exaggeration style and polemics of the original idea of “rage” swirl around it and nearly drown it out. Anyone who sees Mad Madge will likely start googling Margaret Cavendish as soon as they are able to find out the real story. While it is good that Napoli’s play may make Margaret better known, it is too bad the play itself does not depict the real story since it is far more fascinating than anything Napoli invents. To attract people to a play about an unjustly neglected figure from history and then to provide virtually no accurate information about the figure is immensely unsatisfying. A good play about Margaret Cavendish has yet to be written. At least, Napoli sees that such a play should be centred in the Margaret-William relationship. It’s too bad she did not alter the surrounding action to support rather than overwhelm it.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Rose Napoli as Margaret; Karl Ang as William and Rose Napoli as Margaret; Nancy Palk as Henrietta Maria and Farhang Ghajar as Dycker; Izad Etemadi as Elizabeth, Wayne Burns as Thomas, Rose Napoli as Margaret and Nancy Palk as Pye. © 2024 Dahlia Katz.

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