On Thursday night (6th May), I was invited to see arts company Cabinets of Curiosity’s minxy new play “Five Clever Courtesans” at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton. The historical pub/theatre was a fitting place for the ladies to share their stories, as it was at one time rumoured to have been a brothel . . .
First performed in February at London’s Vibe Bar, Sarah Blake’s production is a fascinating exploration of sex, seduction and fame. The narrative is told through a select group of some of history’s most famous courtesans: Veronica Franco, Nell Gwynn, T’zu Hsi, Cora Pearl (known in Paris as ’The Grand Horizontal’ because of her legendary skills in the sack) and Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters. All had their fair share of heads of State (no pun intended) and all have a fascinating tale to tell.
The five have gathered together in the afterlife and share stories, gossip, rivalries and thoughts on the role of the modern woman. From such diverse backgrounds as the Forbidden City, Victorian London and the pit of Drury Lane, the characters are brought to life by a company of brilliant actresses. Cora (Renata Byrne) and Skittles (Jennifer Laine), are both beauties and venomous rivals across the Channel; Emma Kate Baxter and Suni La play the scheming and cultured Veronica Franco and T’zu Hsi beautifully. However, the star turn is from the excellent Romilly Turner as Nell Gwynn- played to perfection as a saucy cross between Russell Brand and Barbara Windsor.
While what they did may have been salacious, Blake makes a convincing argument that it also gave the courtesans enormous independence in such restricted times for women. Their extra-curricular work opened doorways previously denied to these working-class women—Gwynn was acknowledged as an actress and Franco as a poet, while Skittles became a fashion icon and Cora a celebrity and most expensive courtesan in Paris, while T’zu Hsi literally slept her way to the top, becoming Empress of China. The characters muse on the fact that, thankfully, many of us nowadays do not need rich patrons to get what we want.
I for one was seduced by the play and its bawdy, wry humour— “Five Clever Courtesans” is intense in a small theatre like the Marlborough, but not so much as to overwhelm the audience. The ladies are endlessly fascinating and deserve to be plucked from the patriarchal pages of history.
On show in Germany in June, “Five Clever Courtesans” will be travelling to Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
Photo c James Cadman