As a passionate Londoner, I cannot help but be intrigued: a group of Americans is here to present their danced interpretation of that most archetypal Londoner, the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys. Annie-B Parson and her company Big Dance Theater, from New York, open this year’s Dance Umbrella Festival. It is their first appearance in the UK, and also the first time that Dance Umbrella, a nomadic festival playing many different London venues every fall, has a presence at the history-steeped Old Vic Theatre. Both the festival and the Old Vic are celebrating anniversaries: the festival turns forty, the theatre two hundred.
17c draws a buzzy crowd, and a transatlantic connection is quickly established when a periwigged Cynthia Hopkins emerges, house lights still on, to read one of Pepys’s diary entries and engage the audience in a conversation about local slang words for penis. Pepys’ own favorite, “yard,” is mocked for its ambition. The first half of the piece continues with wry comedy, introducing Pepys (the role shared between Cynthia Hopkins and Mikéah Ernest Jennings) and his wife Bess (Elizabeth DeMent) and exploring the dynamic of their marriage. Twice-daily dancing lessons, we are told, bring passion but are canceled immediately when a jealous and threatened Pepys suspects that his wife may enjoy them too much: “A gentleman never dances as well as a dancing master.”
The mainly contemporary-dance audience appreciates such gentle in-jokes. There is laughter when, during a duet between the two protagonists, six screens light up with the comment “They are dancing about their relationship.” The multitude of screens, projections, and live-video sequences suggest a link between Pepys’s compulsive diary writing and the saturation of personal posts in our social media culture; however, this remains underexplored. The choreography and dancing, too, are disappointingly underpowered compared with the production’s more theatrical elements, which are transparent and virtuosic. The excellent cast of five narrates, interrupts, comments, and suggests, sings, and makes music, reorganizes the stage, sets up microphones and experiments with different bits of costume. A highlight is the super-enthusiastic vlogging duo of the Restauration Book Club (Kourtney Rutherford and Elizabeth DeMent). The playing feels collaborative and authentic.
The theatrical web is so loosely constructed that many things are able to shine through, and on this evening it is the continued silencing of female voices by powerful men that resonates most strongly. While in the US and on TV screens across the globe a woman is summoning her strength and her voice to speak out about a sexual assault suffered many years ago at the hands of a now powerful representative of the judiciary, we hear a long, languid monologue by Pepys (Paul Lazar) about his sexual obsession with his wife’s teenaged maid. Having fired her after his abuse is discovered, he continues to pursue her across London with shocking aggression and complete disregard for her–or his wife’s–dignity as a human being. Their voices are missing, even from this piece. Her own diary having been burned in a fit of rage by her husband, Bess remains a silent presence on stage. It is not quite enough.
Lisa Marie Bowler is a London-based writer, translator, editor, and dramaturg specializing in dance. She worked at Sadler’s Wells for several years before completing her Ph.D. at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich with a thesis on the phenomenology of theatre architecture. Together with Emma Gladstone and dance dramaturg Guy Cools she published the body: language series of talks with choreographers, dancers, and artists. In 2014 she participated in the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard University, and from 2016 to 2017 she was on the Executive Committee of the Dramaturgs’ Network. Currently, she coordinates Creative Europe–funded large-scale cooperation project Dance On, Pass On, Dream On.