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.