There’s something rather heroic in a production with the confidence to place its faith in the erudition of its audience.

Ink And Curtain‘s The Red Queen And Other Monsters, a piece of theatre which makes use of The Fates of Greek mythology as a kind of frame on which to thread together its quilt of Shakespeare, the Classics and royal history, each patch retold from the perspectives of its ‘monstrous’ heroine, presumes a breadth of prior knowledge more-or-less the equal of its writers. Such disinclination to pander is both admirable, and, in my own case at least, somewhat over-optimistic.  

At Manchester’s Hope Mill tonight, the writers in question are avowedly queer theatre-makers, Maz Hedgehog and Faye Draper, the latter of whom also leaves herself further exposed by taking to the stage, both as a Fate and two of the production’s protagonists. From its opening prologue on, its language is never less than beautifully wrought. Capturing the cadences of 17th century theatre while maintaining its own character, it’s a delight to surrender to. That, and the performances of all four principles, rivets the attention even when precise reference points to the less familiar of the retold tales are more difficult to fix upon.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pieces that were, for me, most successful were those whose set texts have, across time, become unmoored from the library shelf and drifted over into public consciousness. In particular, the two-hander between Draper’s woundedly pragmatic Lady Capulet and Emelia Cole’s stroppily adolescent Juliet is a marvel of theatrical economy, compressing a sociology of gendered power differentials across the centuries into a vignette with the jousting verve of Jo and her mother, Helen in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey. On the whole, such two or three-handers, setting off the writers’ gifts for the sparking dialogue of familial tensions, worked more effectively for me than the monologues, in spite of the hectic commitment Janelle Thompson brought to her one-woman embodiment of 15th century queen, Margaret of Anjou.  

Nonetheless, such cavils aside, the first act of the performance has the undeniable momentum of its own considerable convictions. For me, the second act felt less satisfactory, returning to the scenes of the first with powerfully-acted grief but curiously little sense of resolution. Even Goneril’s murder, vengefully throttled by one of her sisters, feels peculiarly contingent, an effect only emphasised by the circular structure of the framing device.  

Forged as the piece is with intelligence and passion, such flaws are far from fatal. While its canonical source material is, on the face of it, at odds with its heterodox intentions, The Red Queen’s inversions and subversions are all the more powerful for taking on the Classics on their own terms. Likewise, while madness as a trope all too often runs the risk of trivialising mental illness by reducing it to a dramatic effect, equally, in the spirit of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, it might stand as the sole viable way of cutting the double-bind of a woman’s narrowly proscribed roles. There is, moreover, a positive charge of potential energy in the writing and performances that, while contained to some extent by the brevity of the individual scenes here, could yet be tapped with further development.  

What follows for Ink And Curtain could well be explosive. 

By Desmond Bullen

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The Red Queen and Other Monsters is at Shakespeare North Playhouse until July 30, 2023. For more information, click here.