Review: The Lizzie Play

Recently I was invited to watch The Lizzie Play at the RADA in London, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’. Here is my review of the play.

Adapting Angela Carter for both stage and screen has often proved difficult, in large part due to her baroque writing style – what she once referred to as her “overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose” (Angela Carter’s Curious Room). Nona Shepphard’s The Lizzie Play, adapted from Carter’s ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ by Deirdre Strath, solves this problem brilliantly by employing a Greek-style chorus, in which four of the actors double up as witnesses, narrating the events of the infamous Lizzie Borden and speaking lines taken directly from Carter’s story.

Deirdre Strath
Deirdre Strath

(That this story is one of Carter’s less fantastic texts no doubt also makes matters easier – I’ve often wondered how one would go about adapting a text like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, for example.) Through the chorus we get to hear Carter’s mannered prose directly, including the descriptions of the “City Hall clock whirr[ing] and sputter[ing] the prolegomena to the first stroke of six”, Lizzie and her sister Emma’s confinement in a state of “fictive, protracted childhood”, and Andrew Borden’s awakening to “the evanescent nature of private property” after his house is burgled. Additionally, by functioning as witnesses, the chorus strengthens the impression that we the audience are acting as Lizzie’s judges, deciding in the matter of her guilt or innocence. Indeed, this becomes almost explicit when, at several points during the performance, the cast act out short sequences from Lizzie’s trial, with the actors facing the audience as if addressing a jury.

For those not familiar with the story, Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892, in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Due to a lack of evidence, Lizzie was acquitted of all charges and lived for the remainder of her life in Fall River, despite being ostracised by the community and abandoned by her sister Emma. The case quickly gained widespread attention throughout the country and was one of the first widely publicised murder cases, anticipating later examples from the Rosenberg trial to the more recent example of Steven Avery (the latter made famous by the TV documentary Making a Murderer). The Lizzie Borden case was also memorialized in the form of a nursery rhyme, which Carter reproduces at the head of her story:

Lizzie Borden with an axe
Gave her father forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her mother forty-one.

Carter’s ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ focuses on the moments leading up to the murders and emphasises the intensely hot weather, the nauseous smells, and the tensions within the Borden household. Although the story begins early in the morning, the narrator explains that “even at this hour, everything shimmers and quivers under the attack of white, furious sun already high in the still air.” More than the heat, it is “the humidity” that is “intolerable” and “the weather clings like a low fever you cannot shake off.” A few paragraphs later, Carter writes that in today’s age we have “largely forgotten the physical discomforts of the itching, oppressive garments of the past” and especially “the smells of the past, the domestic odours – ill-washed flesh; infrequently changed underwear; chamber-pots; slop-pails; inadequately plumbed privies; rotting food; unattended teeth; and the […] omnipresent acridity of horse piss and dung”. One smell in particular that pervades the Borden house is that of vomit, for the entire family has been up all night emptying their stomachs, the cause of which is left ambiguous: was it the re-heated fish that they ate or is someone poisoning the family? If all of this wasn’t tortuous enough, Mr Borden has instigated a rule that every door in the house should be locked at all times, thereby turning the home into a claustrophobic labyrinth: “A house full of locked doors that open only into other rooms with other locked doors, for, upstairs and downstairs, all the rooms lead in and out of one another like a maze in a bad dream.” If this reminds readers of Carter’s earlier short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’, then they will not be surprised to find that later on she likens the Borden house to “Bluebeard’s castle”, one of several references to fairy tales in ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ and which is reproduced in The Lizzie Play.


“Angela Carter likens the Borden house to “Bluebeard’s castle”, one of several references to fairy tales in ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’.”

The picture that Carter paints of the Borden family is one of jealousy, greed, and miserliness: as Lizzie’s stepmother gorges herself on various sweet foods, her father is out buying up properties in “an orgy of investment” – Andrew and Abigail Borden “are Mr and Mrs Jack Spratt in person”. The relationship between Lizzie and her stepmother is one of mutual suspicion and hostility, Lizzie calling her not “mother” but “Mrs Borden”, after “a quarrel about money”. On one level, Lizzie and Abigail are rivals for Andrew’s attention and money, both looking forward to a sizeable inheritance each thinks is rightfully hers alone. If examples like this appear to provide Lizzie with a clear and rational motive to murder her stepmother (if not her father), it is noteworthy that Carter not only emphasises environmental factors such as the intense heat, but also draws attention to the fact that Lizzie is “menstruating”. Although the story stops short of suggesting that the murder is the result of what Carter elsewhere in the story refers to as “female pain”, it is an interesting addition to the narrative of Lizzie Borden because it draws attention to Lizzie’s gender in ways reminiscent of the stories in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (in particular, ‘Wolf Alice’). Gender also clearly played a role in both shaping Lizzie’s confined and confining life, and in determining the outcome of her trial. A line from Carter’s story that appears in the play makes clear the former: “[Andrew Borden] owns all the women [in his house] by either marriage, birth or contract.” As for the latter, the consensus of the jury seems to have been that a sweet, church-going girl like Lizzie was surely incapable of committing a brutal axe murder.

“Gender also clearly played a role in both shaping Lizzie’s confined and confining life, and in determining the outcome of her trial.”

Rada festival logo.jpg
RADA Festival 2017

In large part, the gendered dimension of this story was the impetus behind the decision to produce The Lizzie Play for the RADA Festival this year. The play was read last year as part of a series of 100 plays by and for women, and proved so popular that the Women@RADA group decided to produce it as fully as possible for the festival in 2017. Run by students and graduates of the RADA, Women@RADA acts as a “forum for discussion of the issues around gender equality in the field of performance” and “aims to develop and support the creativity of women across the industry”.

Nona Shepphard
Nona Shepphard

When I spoke to director Nona Shepphard after the performance, she told me that her interest in Lizzie’s story centres on issues of women’s freedom of movement, occupation and expression. Both Lizzie and her sister were unmarried, without occupation (besides voluntary charity work) and continued to live in the family home. At one point in the play, after observing that Lizzie spends most of her time in her bedroom, her father asks “what does she do in there?” As Carter’s narrator puts it, “I can’t imagine what else [the Borden girls] might do” in their rooms besides napping, repairing garments, writing letters and “staring vacantly into space”. Shepphard also spoke about the question of Lizzie’s mental health and compared her to that of the unnamed female narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, coincidentally published the same year as the Fall River axe murders (1892). In both Carter’s story and the play, Lizzie is portrayed as suffering from what appears to be some kind of pathological disease, whether neurosis or psychosis. Carter describes Lizzie as entering a “somnambulist trance” at one point in the story, and Mrs Borden sees her as “poltergeist”, locating Lizzie in what scholars of the Gothic refer to as “spectral femininity” (see Rebecca Munford’s chapter on spectral femininity in Women and the Gothic). Later on, Lizzie is said to have the “mad eyes of the New England saints” and the act of looking in a mirror produces a split in her personality: “‘Lizzie is not herself, today.’” When I asked Shepphard about how Lizzie might be judged from the perspective of today’s society, she responded that while we may be quick to diagnose her with some form of madness, it is important to note that women have generally been considered more mad than bad – an index perhaps of male anxiety concerning powerful and violent women.

“In both Carter’s story and the play, Lizzie is portrayed as suffering from what appears to be some kind of pathological disease, whether neurosis or psychosis.”

Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden

Whatever the case may be regarding Lizzie Borden’s mental health, Lottie Latham’s portrayal of Lizzie is excellent because, like Carter’s depiction, it leaves matters open to interpretation. She shows us Lizzie’s understandable frustrations with her stepmother, her narrow life and the insufferable environment in which she lives, but she also captures well what Carter refers to variously as Lizzie’s “odd lapses of behaviour, unexpected, involuntary trances, [and] moments of disconnection”. For example, at one point in the play we see Lizzie asleep in a chair, with her feet twitching “like those of a dog dreaming of rabbits”. Latham also replicates brilliantly Lizzie’s vacant and somewhat menacing stare, which Carter likens to the “mad eyes” of the religious fanatic or the crazed assassin, as well as to the eyes of a blind person. Carter’s narrator asks the reader to imagine coming across Lizzie’s face while “sorting through a box of old photographs in a junk shop” and says that we might only see the menace once we recognise “who she is and what it was she did”. This scenario appears slightly differently in the play, with one member of the chorus holding up a photograph of the real Lizzie Borden in front of the Lizzie on the stage in a gesture that reminded me of some of Magritte’s paintings. It felt as if the audience were being asked to think about how we “see” Lizzie and what it is we might be projecting onto her – a brilliantly self-conscious act of staging in my view.

“Lottie Latham’s portrayal of Lizzie is excellent because, like Carter’s depiction, it leaves matters open to interpretation.”

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Photo: Helen Murray

The issue of blindness that Carter alludes to is also taken up and developed in an imaginative way. When the play begins, the three principle characters of the story – Lizzie, her father and stepmother – are brought onto the stage wearing crimson-coloured blindfolds as the chorus sings the nursery rhyme ‘Three Blind Mice’. Not only does this help to create a sense of tension from the outset, with the line about the “carving knife” resonating with the axe lying suggestively at the front of the stage, but the blindfolds are also suggestive of blind fate, further reinforcing the feeling that this is Lizzie Borden re-imagined as Greek tragedy. The blindness also plays nicely into the image of Lizzie as acting unconsciously or while in some kind of trance, further problematizing the issue of Lizzie’s presumed guilt. The chorus then proceeds to sing the Lizzie Borden children’s rhyme while pretending to give the famous forty whacks to the blindfolded Mr and Mrs Borden who lie supine on a sofa, oblivious to this (pretend) violence. The addition of another nursery rhyme really helps to accentuate the contrast between the reality of the bloody murder and the childlike fun and games in which many of us first heard of Lizzie Borden.

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Photo: Helen Murray

The play departs in a few interesting ways from Carter’s short story. Firstly, it introduces the idea that Lizzie was being sexually abused by her father and perhaps also by a stranger during her trip to Europe (indeed, her trip itself is fleshed out in more detail). The former idea certainly makes sense given that Andrew Borden spoiled his daughter something rotten (out of a feeling of guilt?) and perhaps also helps explain why Lizzie might have wanted to murder an otherwise doting father. The other change lies in the depiction of the axe murder. While Carter’s story stops short of the horrific act, perhaps because “our imagination […] always equips her” with her famous axe as the narrator puts it, the play does partially depict Lizzie giving her stepmother forty-one whacks – I say partially, as Mrs Borden is hidden from view by the sofa. With the axe looming at the front of the stage for the entire play it is no surprise to find that this Chekovian rifle is finally fired in the final act. Despite departing from Carter’s version, I found this final scene enjoyable for it released the (at times) unbearable tension and satisfied the spectator’s hunger for blood!

-®helenmurray RADA FESTIVAL The Lizzie Play dir Nona Shepphard-283.jpg
Photo: Helen Murray

Although I’ve mentioned only Lottie Latham’s performance as Lizzie, the entire cast deserve the highest praise as they have all done a fantastic job. If I were to single only one other actor out, I would have to give praise to Rose O’Loughlin as Bridget Sullivan (the maid), for she brings Carter’s sharp wit and bawdy humour to life brilliantly. As she explains to Lizzie at one point in the play with a mischievous look in her eyes, she constantly feeds Mrs Borden sweet cakes because it is the only way to stop her endless chattering! Bridget and Lizzie also share a tender and subtly sexual moment towards the end of the play, which nods to the theory that Lizzie was a lesbian – an unsubstantiated theory that is partly based on the fact that her sister strongly disapproved of Lizzie’s association with actress Nance O’Neil. Moments like these are powerful in their suggestiveness and give the play a sense of depth that I appreciated.

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Photo: Helen Murray

Over the past few years, a number of stage adaptations of Angela Carter’s works have appeared, including Kneehigh’s Nights at the Circus in 2006, Invisible Ink/Theatr Iolo’s The Magic Toyshop in 2014, and Marvellous Machine’s The Tiger’s Bride in 2016. Emma Rice has also just announced that she is launching a new theatre company called Wise Children, named after Carter’s final novel, and their first production will be of said novel. The Lizzie Play is another superb adaptation of Carter and a more unusual one given that the short story on which it is based is not one of Carter’s most famous works. These are exciting times for fans of Angela Carter and I look forward to watching more stage productions of her work in the future.

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Lizzie Play

  1. This was an excellent production and played to a packed house every night. It deserves to be picked up for a longer run somewhere!
    For Rufus Norris’s original 1992 production of the Lizzie Play at Arts Threshold in London I was asked to produce a series of short dream sequences to be projected during the performance. These were shot in black and white on 16mm film and can be viewed here:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paul. Thanks very much for sharing this video. The dream sequences look really haunting and I can see how they would work really well for The Lizzie Play. I also agree that The Lizzie Play should definitely be picked up for a longer run as it was fantastic and more people should see it.


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