A girdle round about the earth – Katherine Mansfield as a “wild colonial girl” at Circa Theatre

A play by Lorae Parry

Directed by Susan Wilson
Music by Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Design by Lisa Maule
Lighting by Marcus McShane
Costumes by Sheila Horton
Audio-visual Design by Haami Hawkins and Lisa Maule
Soundscapes by Oliver Buckley

CAST:  Katherine Mansfield – Isobel MacKinnon
Virginia Woolf – Jessica Robinson
Ida Baker/Leslie Moore aka LM – Jessica Robinson

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Tuesday 21st August – (until 15th September)

Writer Lorae Parry’s dramatized exploration of Katherine Mansfield’s brief but stellar trajectory throughout different worlds on each side of the globe is a miracle of recreation. It takes a particular kind of genius to flesh out convincingly and organically the bones and sinews of someone else’s work, a process for which Parry obviously has the gift of instinct allied to the electric charge of empathy. Mansfield’s own words are filled with the energy and impulsiveness which characterised her formative years, as the “wild colonial girl” cuts an outwardly gauche but essentially compelling figure in London’s literary circles, by turns attracting, appalling and fascinating some of the leading figures in those circles, most notably a fellow-writer, Virginia Woolf. In a ninety-minute tour de force of theatre, Parry puts a girdle round about the earth along which her subject runs, dances, leaps and spins, the result being a warts-and-all self-portrayal of thoroughly engaging spirit, determination and courage, a real person with something for everybody, if disconcertingly volatile and at times tangental in her actions and responses.

Beginning with voice-quotes which appear in tandem with photographs of people who knew Mansfield and whose sounds both echo and resonate, or sparkle with kaleidoscopic immediacy,  we’re instantly plunged into a sea of different impressions of Mansfield, each adding a kind of onion-layer to the body of the personality, and as consistent or contradictory as each had a right to be. My favourite at the time was Frieda Lawrence’s remark, talking about KM’s  “terrible gift of nearness, she can come so close….”, and adding “If she tells lies, she also knows more about the truth than other people….”. It’s a kind of pre-sequence to Mansfield’s own “Who am I” moment, one which she plays with as thistledown on the wind.

At first it seems as if she is a child composed almost of whimsy – “in my life so much love in imagination- in reality, eighteen barren years” she rhapsodises partly to us, partly in thrall to the thought of Edith Bendall (E.K.B.) a woman with whom she had a passionate relationship when young, describing their intimacy to us in the most heartfelt terms before, with a sudden volte-face,  remarking on their “maudlin affair”….people such as Oscar Wilde and Arnold Trowell (a young New Zealander with whom she was involved) slip into and through her thoughts, along with the memory of a schoolmate, Maata Mahupuku, whom she had been intimate with – “I want her as I have had her” – which excites her passions (“savagely crude and powerfully enamoured”) as much as awakens the present absurdity of it all – “Heigh-ho! – my mind is like a Russian novel”. All of this is superbly crafted, weighted and teased out by Parry as words, and in turn by Isobel MacKinnon as Katherine, her quick-draw reflexes portraying a three-dimensional being in the grip of formative emotions and impulses, open-ended and empathetic, so that we can’t help but love her despite some of her more abrasive volatilities.

Aiding and abetting MacKinnon’s compelling characterisation is an equally virtuosic Jessica Robinson bringing to life diametically opposed forces and foils in Mansfield’s life in the personas of both KM’s long-term London friend Ida Baker (otherwise known as Lesley or LM) and her redoubtable literary contemporary-cum-rival Virginia Woolf. Robinson is both separate and oddly empathetic between her two alter egos, with in places a hint of suggestiveness of a commonality between each woman’s response to her “wild colonial girl” – in Ida she invests the character with both constancy and servility towards Katherine, everything suggesting the vulnerability of someone who’s seeking to live through somebody else, and placing herself entirely at the service of someone she loves as a kind of fulfilment, despite KM’s demonstrative ambivalence towards her.

Her portrayal of Virginia Woolf could almost rate a review in itself, so convincingly does she bring the character to life, aided, of course by Lorae Parry’s judiciously-chosen words throughout. There’s a whole gamut of response packed into relatively brief sequences, conveying something of Blake’s “world in a grain of sand” kind of feeling, Woolf’s initial patronising tones (worn like a mask), comparing KM’s apparent commonness to “a civet cat that has taken to street-walking”, while acknowledging her undoubted intelligence and interest. Robinson gives her a compulsive “moth to the flame” aspect regarding KM, as she relishes both her “unpleasant but forcible and utterly unscrupulous character” and “her love of writing”. Later, amid a farrago of convoluted reaction, comes Woolf’s admission that “there’s no-one else I can talk to about writing”, and after KM’s death, the cri de coeur  – “there was no longer any point in writing, Katherine won’t read it.” – altogether a fascinating and absorbing portrayal of somebody who at one stage compares life to “a little strip of pavement over an abyss”.

Where Parry’s play scores equally brilliantly is in relating Mansfield’s work to her life, something also commented on by Woolf in places, as much in jealousy as in outward disgust regarding the story “Bliss” in particular – “I threw down “Bliss” with the exclamation “She’s done for!”, and later, “….is it absurd to read all this criticism of her into a story?…..” Earlier, KM relates an excerpt from “In a German Pension”, following with the thought, “I’ve acted out my sins, and then excused them with “it doesn’t do to think about these things….it was experience”, and then delineates the influence of her brother Lesley (killed in the war) on her story “Prelude”, with a charmingly macabre sequence involving the idea of standing on one’s head and breaking one’s neck! – throughout these “art is life, etc.” sequences we were captivated, as throughout, but especially so here, by MacKinnon’s lightness and surety of touch, far more than a more self-consciously “felt” approach would have done. In places it was almost a theatrical master-class given by actor, director and playwright in the art of when to hold and when to let go…..

Into the play’s ninety minutes there was poured, set and crafted so much more that can’t be covered here – enough for the moment to say that Susan Wilson’s direction seemed “hand-in-glove” with the writer’s intentions throughout, Sheila Horton’s costumes seemed to have a “rightness” that helped bring to life each different sequence and change or development of character, and Lisa Maule’s set inestimably helped ‘rivet” our sensibilities to particular times and places. The whole was given an ambient glow by Marcus McShane’s sensitive lighting, occasionally galvanised by the vivid presence of the AV images (Maule with Haami Hawkins), to which the oddly nostalgic effect of Michael Nicholas Williams’ slow-motion realisations of Debussy’s music and the atmospheric sound-effects by Oliver Buckley gave an appropriate dream-like quality.

In sum, I thought Parry’s play and its production here easefully and unselfconsciously “placed” Mansfield on a mainstream literary stage, with nothing either overly dismissive or narrowly parochial about her conception – the character comes across as, in her own words, “a conscious, direct human being”, for us to accept as we find her. All up, a pretty stunning achievement.








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