17c review – a ponderous evening with Mrs Pepys

Old Vic, London
The London diarist’s long-suffering wife, Bess, takes centre stage in this laboriously well-intentioned piece

What are we to make of Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist who chronicled his life with a frankness that, even today, has the power to startle? A brilliant administrator who rose to become chief secretary to the admiralty, Pepys describes his bowel movements and the capriciousness of his erections with the same unflinching vividness that he brings to his descriptions of the great plague and the fire of London. In his disfavour, he was a serial adulterer who took casual and often brutal advantage of women, and particularly the wholly powerless young women he employed as servants. “Alone with her and against her struggles, I did what I wanted…” he says of one such encounter.

17c, created and choreographed by Annie-B Parson, director of Brooklyn-based Big Dance Theater, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless women in Pepys’s grand narrative, and in particular to his long-suffering wife Elizabeth – Bess – who kept a diary that Pepys destroyed. “How do we retrieve identities that have been erased?” Parson asks. 17c, in which she creates writing for Bess, and draws our attention to the sad, nullified situation in which Bess lived, and in which many women still live today, is her answer.

The imagined texts of Bess and others are declaimed, enacted and danced. The most potent passage is a dream sequence, in which we see Mrs Pepys, bewigged and half-undressed, lying on her back and writhing in languorous slow motion. She looks at once ecstatic and immobilised, pinned like a butterfly. “The past is extremely sad,” a commentator informs us. A less successful sequence sees Pepys and Bess engaged in an elaborate, courtly duet. “They are dancing out their relationship,” overhead monitors inform us. The monitors deliver a wry, ongoing commentary. “We are singing to express our despair at the betrayal of love,” they announce, as the five-strong company do just that.

Parson makes her point, but laboriously. There is too much declamation, and given the eloquence of Parson’s choreography, and the vocal limitations of her performers, too little dance. The history of Pepys’s on-off abusive relationship with his housemaid Deb Willet – “I have been seduced by her dark powers,” Pepys said, after raping her – is recounted, dully and monotonously, by a male cast member. At moments the text is updated to awkward 21c-speak. “I can’t enjoy how great my house is beginning to look after the re-do,” says one performer, channelling Pepys’s discontent.

The dreadful nature of Pepys’s behaviour towards Bess, Deb and other women over whom he had domain is unarguable, and the melancholy situation of these women deplorable. Echoes of #MeToo are deafening, and when Pepys describes Bess catching him molesting Deb, with his hand “in her cunny”, it’s impossible not to think of Donald Trump saying “grab them by the pussy”. In three and a half centuries, it’s clear that in certain quarters little has changed. But 17c is a wearisome and unengaging piece of theatre. It talks at us interminably and makes its points ponderously. Parson’s heart is in the right place, but the evening never lifts off the page.


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
17c review – rollicking 21st-century take on Samuel Pepys
Pepys’s celebrated diaries come under feminist scrutiny in Big Dance Theater’s postmodern mashup

Lyndsey Winship

28, Sep, 2018 @8:30 PM

Article image
Drew McOnie: ‘It’s not a technical process, it’s instinctual’
The Olivier award-winning choreographer on working with Matthew Bourne, his creative process and his new production of Jekyll and Hyde

Luke Jennings

22, May, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
Art review – 90s ‘comedy’ becomes an old master
Rufus Sewell is poised and sleek in Yasmina Reza’s tale of three friends and a very expensive white canvas

Susannah Clapp

01, Jan, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Fanny & Alexander; Trust – review
Perceptions are challenged in a new Ingmar Bergman adaptation and a state-of-the-world address

Susannah Clapp

04, Mar, 2018 @7:59 AM

Article image
Woyzeck review – John Boyega is a powerful tragic hero
The Star Wars actor is impressive in Jack Thorne’s reworking of George Büchner’s unfinished play

Tim Adams

28, May, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
No’s Knife review – a marathon and a triumph
Lisa Dwan’s adaptation of Beckett’s 13 short prose pieces is a feat of memory, dedication and courage

Kate Kellaway

09, Oct, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Caretaker review – star turns but no terror
Compelling performances from Timothy Spall, Daniel Mays and George MacKay fail to elevate Matthew Warchus’s production of the Pinter classic

Susannah Clapp

10, Apr, 2016 @6:59 AM

Article image
One Hand Tied Behind Us: Betsy; Contactless review – emphatic monologues
Solo voices reverberate in Maxine Peake’s impassioned play about a woman in prison, and Ella Hickson’s roaming story of escape

Susannah Clapp

07, Mar, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
A Christmas Carol review – a love song to Christmas
Rhys Ifans stars in a joyous, psychoanalytical reading of Dickens that celebrates the redeeming power of theatre

Claire Armitstead

03, Dec, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Wise Children review – Emma Rice’s joyous Angela Carter adaptation
Carter’s riotous novel about a south London theatrical dynasty bursts on to the stage in this life-enhancing show

Kate Kellaway

21, Oct, 2018 @7:00 AM