The house lights are still up when the performance of 17c begins. There is a witty meta-theatricality hanging in the air, accompanying an introduction to the topics that scream from the pages of Samuel Pepys’ diary. An American lilt bubbles from beneath a mass of wigged curls, easing the audience into a state of amusement. There is a tickling of laughter at rather lengthy euphemisms – not least at the mention of a severe bout of constipation. This self-awareness is sustained throughout, heightened as a large backdrop dissolves into a live camera feed, pointed straight at the stalls.
Although Pepys is most famous for his combination of recorded intimate activities and significant events (such as The Great Plague and the Great Fire of London), creator and choreographer Annie-B Parson chooses to focus on the former. Through a feminist exploration of his revered journal, she amplifies the voices belonging to the female figures in his life, giving particular attention to his wife, Elizabeth. A pre-recorded narration plays on a loop, sticking on the ‘e’ of ‘English’. The word whirls around, and a group of five move to the sounds of stilted speech. They appear robotic, one emerging laced in a pink corset, with blonde ringlets falling about her expressionless face. Elizabeth (better known as Bess) does not speak, her dialogue appearing as a lurid blush on the screen behind.
The action is laced with hypnotic orders, accentuated by a run of small television sets. These are regularly stamped with ironic subtitles, giving the production a sarcastic quality. Husband and wife dance like vintage plastic dolls, the mesh of a wire fence shimmering in the back. An Orwellian fog clings to recurring motifs of oppression, attending to a force that is growing more visible within the present socio-economic climate. Two of the cast have a habit of wrenching the narrative away so that it is shown through the lens of a vlogging outfit. Their commentary is delightful, interspersed with absurd tableaux that render Pepys’ observations ludicrous.
Parson also concentrates on Pepys’ curiosity for cultural endeavours, making jest of the jealousy that surfaces over his wife’s dancing lessons. Bess leaps like a springbok, straight into their ‘theatre-going phase’, and then emerging at the point of her husband’s affair with their young maid. It is mysterious how he can absolve himself of all responsibility and guilt through branding his mistress a witch. Told to the sound of live music, this cold act is made warm by the small storm of a maraca, along with the twang of a bass guitar.
17c offers a perspective that Pepys does not grant his reader. His abusive behaviours are shown for what they are, and his efforts to remain in denial are pinned to the limbs of the cast. The production is a multi-faceted hybrid, with tragic edges trapping a soft humour. Bess is left, spinning as if underwater. Her body is slack, surrendering to the great pains of fever and betrayal. Here, silence speaks of years of injustice, and is only broken by a final eulogy to her dying spirit. Parson has drawn a powerful line between seventeenth-century England and the present-day. In giving Bess an identity, she makes known the legacy of invisible women – wives, mothers and daughters. All that have been made transparent under the heel of man.