Review of Sub Rosa

Posted by Andrew Sneddon on January 23, 2009 in Blog tagged with

Sub Rosa, a new piece written and directed by David Leddy, is billed as a ‘Gothic Victorian promenade show through the secret backstage spaces of the Citizens Theatre’. It seemed to promise a kind of hyper-theatricality which would span the usual gulf between stage and audience and transform it into something else, something different. I don’t know what I expected exactly, but I did expect my own role would change from that of a passive voyeur to a position of intimate and potentially disturbing complicity in the action as it unfolded.


And this, I think, is why the ‘show’ (their word not mine) is ultimately unsatisfying. There is no action to speak of, gruesome murders are not committed before one’s very eyes and there is little dramatic tension. The audience, in small groups of 15, is herded around the nooks and crannies behind and beyond the stage. On arrival at a new location po-faced ‘tour guides’ urged us to sit and listen while a character appeared and delivered what amounted to a dramatic monologue. The one exception to this was when the ghosts of a fraudulent Siamese twin act delivered a witty and well-acted two-hander (no-pun intended).


Over the course of the tour / performance a plot concerning child abuse, back street abortions, the abuse of power, a tragic love story, a ‘Gothic’ heroine, various villains and a gruesome double murder gradually unfolds. We never meet or see the heroine, Flora McIvor (a crippled child-actress of rare beauty and talent), though we do meet her jaded, opium-addled nemesis. We also meet a camp wig-maker, a Hungarian strongman and ‘posturer’, and Flora’s mother, the aptly named Mrs Thorn.


The plot fails to grip precisely because it is essentially narrated to us rather than being acted. As soon as it dawns on you that all the events are already in the past any anticipation of a ‘Gothic’ spectacle quickly dissipates and one is essentially left with an experience akin to a ‘ghost walk’ deluxe. It’s certainly atmospheric, and fun, and the physical engagement with the seedy, grimy backstage areas of a working theatre is an interesting experience. It’s like the lungs and bowels of a Victorian theatre are spread out before your eyes as its corpse is dissected in the manner of an autopsy. Maybe that is fanciful. There is no getting away from the feeling that everything has been ‘staged’ and good drama, like good fiction, is about the suspension of disbelief. It’s too tempting, and too easy, to disbelieve in the ‘Victorian’ nature of the piece while your scalp is burning under electric arc lights and you’re tripping on cabling. The characters remind you over and over that ultimately everything in the theatre is ‘deceit’. Maybe they say that once or twice too often and break their own spells.


I’m not qualified to comment on just how ‘Gothic’ this promenade show is. But, it strikes me that its Gothic features are really a kind of anti-Gothic. They are sometimes knowingly and lovingly mocked, although there are moments in the various narratives delivered that are genuinely macabre and disturbing. Is that, dressed up in some period costume, enough to qualify it? As one of the Siamese twins says, the audience ‘came here’ for a ‘bit of misery’. Gothic, I think you will find, is the “genre”’. There are lots of doublings, uncanny repetitions and so forth but my understanding is that the Gothic ‘genre’ surely isn’t something you can dress a narrative, an actor or a space in. It is something structural, something political, something more. And it is these somethings that seem to be missing. The piece is essentially a species of atmospheric melodrama, and it seems from my ill-informed position that that isn’t enough.


There is a sort of effort to make the show political by drawing a parallel between the fictional theatre in which the promenade takes place, ‘The Winter Palace’, Flora’s rebellious nature, and the Bolshevik storming of the Winter Palace in Tsarist Russia in 1917. This is a pretty unsatisfying and careless anachronism for a ‘Victorian’ piece and doesn’t help.


In its best moments Sub Rosa plays well with notions of secrecy. We gradually learn all that was hidden at the start and what brought Flora to her fate: the jealousy and envy, the lust, the hate and lack of love, and so too do we learn about the usually-closed spaces where these events are supposed to have happened. But there is never any sense in which the audience becomes directly involved in sub rosa activities. I’m afraid that I simply was not convinced, but others have been. Louise Welsh, for instance, argues that ‘[t]he spaces we’re presented with begin to shrink and the audience is drawn into threatening complicity with the cast’. That’s exactly what I hoped for – but I didn’t feel it.


The text of the play is available from Fairplay Press (£4) and has a thoughtful preface by Louise Welsh. Sub Rosa runs until 31st January at the Citizen’s Theatre, Glasgow.



By Dr Andrew J. Sneddon

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