The Mistress Cycle continues at the Landor Theatre, London until 9 March.
The From Page to Stage season continues at the Landor with the UK premiere of an all-woman tale of sacrifice, destruction and renewal that first took shape more than 14 years ago, and settled into something close to its current form at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005. The Mistress Cycle is described by book writer and poet Beth Blatt as a ‘song-cycle-plus’, and is a 90-minute exploration of what it is to be the other woman – the concubines, seductresses and mistresses who “occupy the place of wife… anyone who comes second”.
The scant story centres on Tess (Caroline Deverill), a single professional – a photographer living, in this UK version, in Shoreditch – who at the beginning of the show is ambling through an exhibition entitled The Other Woman. As she reads about the lives of the four mistresses on display, the portraits come alive and begin to share their stories (‘This is How it Starts’). Before we get stuck into the storytelling, however, we first get to know Tess and hear of her lack of success in the relationship stakes (‘Death By a Thousand Cuts’).
One by one, the mistresses play on her mind, recounting their tales in what is effectively a rhapsodic, sung-through song cycle. Diane de Poitiers (Laura Armstrong) – the most favoured courtier of France’s Henri II – begins, singing of her love and respect for her King (‘Into Your Eyes’); Ching (Maria Lawson), a teenage concubine in 12th century China, is sold into sexual slavery and prays to her ancestors to acknowledge her sacrifice (‘An Offering’); Lulu White (Nicola Blackman) is a sassy New Orleans bordello Madame at the turn of the 20th century who outlines her philosophy on girl power (‘Divine’); and sexual adventuress Anaïs Nin (Kara Lane) reads aloud her erotic and scandalous diary entries (‘Incandescent Trapeze’).
Having met the mistresses, we return to Tess, who during an exhibition of her own work, is wooed by Ian (‘Gallery Samba’). There’s just one problem – he’s wearing a wedding ring. Flooding back into her mind is clearly the accounts from the mistresses, and she is literally pulled from pillar to post as each of the women delve deeper into their lives and share their different experiences of being that other woman. Should Tess, too, become the other woman?
From the piano – the only instrument – MD Caroline Humphris makes the most of Jenny Giering’s polished score. Tonally, the undulating accompaniment is luscious and silky-smooth, and it’s achingly beautiful at times. It’s not the kind of music that you hum as you leave; these aren’t your typical show tunes, and there’s little opportunity for applause. Instead, you are conveyed through the interwoven vignettes by the rippling, rhapsodic nature of the music, which flows almost like water. Giering also wisely avoids relying too much on the shifting periods and locations, so there’s just the right amount of Chinese tonality and bordello jazz when required.
The five women on stage each deliver credible, harmonious performances, with Lawson’s Ching providing the most moving moment thanks to her emotional, heart-breaking account of the life of a concubine (‘One in a Line’). Blackman provides much needed light as the feisty if ultimately disillusioned Lulu. And ‘Half a Bowl’, sung by Armstrong’s Diana to Catherine de Medici as she tenderly cares for a diseased Queen well aware of her husband’s infidelity, is a wonderful ensemble number that most poignantly reveals that the life of a mistress is not all black and white.
This intelligent, challenging chamber piece, directed by Bronagh Lagan with choreography by Racky Plews, has found the perfect home at the Landor, where the intimate setting enriches the story of shared sisterhood across the centuries. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea – for me, the book didn’t bind it all together quite as satisfyingly as it could have, and I’m not sure of the ultimate message, if there is one – but the point of this page-to-stage season is to get these works aired and discussed and moulded. It’s certainly a show that, like its subjects, demands and deserves attention.
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