December 17, 2018

Highly recommended: D’Eon at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

A powerful central performance, inventive staging, and the tightest of ensembles make Renny Krupinski’s raucous, strident production about a real-life transgender war hero sing, writes Amy Brushfield. 

An elderly figure, drinking heavily, stalks the stage as the audience enter, accompanied by a cross-dressing pianist. Tinkling the ivories prettily, underscoring the chatter and hubbub of an excited first night crowd who completely surround the action as it unfolds, there are sudden slips in tempo, the odd bum note jarring the atmosphere. As the music becomes out-of-kilter, so the figure jolts and wheezes, strikes the air frenetically, manically brushes her clothes and face, yelps and cries and whirls and shakes, her nervous eyes darting to every single nook and cranny. It is an arresting opening to a thrilling evening which twists and turns through the tumultuous life and career of a French Chevalier forced to recount his version of events to a nervy young writer (expertly played by William J. Holstead as an anxious but earnest picture of innocence) eager to publish a book – and this Chevalier, D’Eon de Beaumont, it transpires, had quite the life.

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Aside from fighting in the Seven Years’ War, D’Eon had been forced to dress as a woman in order to infiltrate Empress Elizabeth of Russia’s court and conspire with the French during tense relations between them, the English, and the monarchy of Habsburg, as part of Louis XV’s ‘Secret’ department. However, for the last few decades of his life, D’Eon himself chose to live as a woman, causing outrage, consternation, and condemnation. Probably the first recorded transgender human in Europe, the androgynous D’Eon is first presented as embittered, haunted, and introspective, dangerously quiet in his speech directly to the audience and barking angrily at the pianist, who may or may not be the soldier’s inner self. But, as Renny Krupinski’s raucous, strident, and fluid production shifts into another gear, we see flashes of D’Eon’s wicked, black humour, his vulnerability, stubbornness, courage, aching hurt, and final ruin.

To say much more would spoil the plot and the surprises, which come thick and fast as the ensemble begins to filter in and out of the story. Krupinski’s sharp, often poetic, and cleverly crafted script is conveyed flawlessly by a skillful cast of twelve, who hurl themselves into electric scenes of debauchery, ribald humour, nail-biting violence, and pure slapstick, all conjured by the Chevalier’s vivid memory. And always on the sidelines, either being encouraged or abused, is the deadpan Patrick Bridgman, providing the tale with its own unique soundtrack – a lovely touch. As we come to know D’Eon and his sufferings, so we sympathise with his predicament and grieve when his achievements are whitewashed by the powers that be. There is no lecture here, no judgement, just plain, hard truth, and all the more affecting for it.

In D’Eon, Krupinski has sculpted a deliciously juicy and incredibly challenging female role which Kaitlin Howard seizes with both hands. Commanding the stage for the entire two-hour running time, she is utterly convincing in her portrayal, whether hallucinating within the sickly D’Eon’s living hell, viciously slaying oncoming Prussian soldiers, teasing Holstead’s painfully shy Thomas, or bartering for her recognition, Howard is always magnificently watchable, charting the character’s journey effortlessly and movingly. The light, pleasingly back-and-forth chemistry with Holstead allows the audience to relax into the rather dense but pacy first act and establishes their growing relationship.

But superb as she is, this is not just a solo effort, Howard being supported by what is surely the tightest, brightest, and most versatile ensemble in town. Bursting from all directions to instantly command the intimate in-the-round space and always investing characters with detail, clarity, and infectious energy, this is clearly an uninhibited, playful company with bags of trust in one another. Although there isn’t a weak link, the engaging Louise McNulty stands out as D’Eon’s fiercely loyal housekeeper, Adrian Palmer switches deftly from a preening, lisping mentor to the raging, pompous Ambassador with murder on his mind, Marc Geoffrey’s nymphomaniac King desperately struggling to keep control of France is a constant delight, the bewitching Adam Elms is outrageously funny as the conniving, histrionic Foreign Minister and quietly touching as a kindly compassionate secret spy, Rachael Gill-Davis’ comic Pompadour is a deliciously scheming and screeching tart, and as the famed playwright Beaumarchais, Dean Fagan lends him an easy charm which turns ever darker and crueller as bargains are made and power games played.

Propelling such a provocative and strong-willed historical figure – and in particular, a largely unknown one – on to the stage turns this production into one of the most fascinating and gripping pieces of theatre I have witnessed in many years. Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont was a pioneer. A brilliant soldier, spy, and diplomat – and, most importantly, one that was unafraid of being their own person, despite continuous attempts to silence them. That the play feels so urgent, so compelling, so relevant, and so brave is testament to Krupinski and his fearless, dynamic company. It stimulates both the head and the heart and everyone should get the chance to see it, if only to witness a key segment of history that the establishment tried to wipe clean away. I applaud The Straight Acting Company and all involved. Highly recommended.

Five stars

By Amy Brushfield.

D’Eon runs at the Hope Mill, Manchester, until Sat 17th February.

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