Back in July, I was invited to watch a performance of The Lizzie Play at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ from her collection Black Venus (also published as Saints and Strangers). The story concerns the infamous case of Lizzie Borden, a young woman from Fall River, Massachusetts who was accused of (but ultimately acquitted of) murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892. Both Carter’s story and The Lizzie Play focus on the tense and stifling atmosphere of the Borden household in the hours leading up to the murder. 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 RADA 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”. You can read my review of the play by clicking here. In addition to watching The Lizzie Play, I had the privilege of speaking with director Nona Shepphard, screenwriter Deirdre Strath, and actress Lottie Latham about this fantastic production. Below is a transcript of our conversation, in which we discuss a number of points, including adapting Angela Carter for the stage, the challenges of playing a (possible) murderer, and the question of whether Lizzie Borden can be seen as a feminist figure.
Caleb Sivyer: How did The Lizzie Play first come about?
Deirdre Strath: I am a performer. I loved the Angela Carter stories, felt passionate that her words should be spoken aloud, and wanted to write a part for myself. I’d graduated from RADA, done fortnightly rep, had auditions, but jobs dried up. I wanted to make my own work. ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ was set in an America I knew intimately, and it seemed a natural fit – I was an American on my own in London in 1988, carving Hallowe’en pumpkins, lighting them, having kids ring the doorbell and be mystified that I was trying to hand them candy when they were asking for ‘pennies for the guy’ (which mystified me!) I thought Lizzie could be me. I spent two weeks in a kind of frenzy of writing, coming up with the first core adaptation of the story. Then I read it back and realised I wasn’t in it. I’d written myself out of the script.
CS: When did you first adapt ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ and did you have to seek Carter’s permission to stage the play?
DS: I started adapting Lizzie almost before I finished reading the story for the first time in 1988. It rang in my head like music from the first few sentences. I didn’t even think about permission, and I didn’t really think about the play ever seeing a stage. A few years went by, and then Rufus, a RADA friend, was starting a company and helping to develop a new theatre, and asked if he could see the play hiding in the drawer – Rufus Norris was starting to direct as well as act, and assisting Brian Astbury to create the Arts Threshold theatre in Gloucester Terrace. So, I dusted Lizzie, rewrote it, asked Lloyd Trott how to ask for permission, we asked, we waited. Completely independently, I performed in a Snoo Wilson comedy, Lynchville (due a revival!) He was a friend of Angela Carter and so she came to see it, sat in the front row, and I wound up succumbing to an extreme religious ecstasy in a state of strategic undress (as directed by the script) and swooned right at her feet. She laughed. In the right way. Soon after, I was unceremoniously dumped in a bathtub, unseen but for strategic twitches of leg, and she laughed even more. She stayed just long enough to be introduced, but Snoo said she wasn’t feeling well enough to stay. He must have given her my phone number because a couple of years later, while we were waiting for permission to do Lizzie, she called. I was so star struck I was in shock and stuttering, and she was warm and lovely, remembered Lynchville, loved the playfulness of the Lizzie adaptation and talked positively about how I saw the characters, wanted to come see it, gave me permission to have it performed. The license came through soon after. The Lizzie Play opened perhaps six weeks later, but too late. I heard on the radio that she had died.
“[W]hile we were waiting for permission to do Lizzie, [Angela Carter] called. I was so star struck I was in shock and stuttering, and she was warm and lovely” (Deirdre Strath).
CS: I subsequently discovered that the play was first staged in 1992. Can you talk about this version and how it is different from the 2017 version?
DS: I think it’s incredibly exciting when the same words find different interpretations, when one actor’s version of a character can be so unlike another and yet, still raw and truthful. The two productions differed in style, the first rougher and grittier, this one more elegant and wise. Technically, the major difference between the two was the use of layers of film to let us in to Lizzie’s dreams in the first, circus physicality to exaggerate distorted reality as she saw it – and the trusting to imagination, letting the audience project their thoughts (and bloodlust!) onto Lizzie and the Bordens. Nona’s production made explicit undercurrents that Rufus’ left more open to interpretation, and vice versa; both worked, and I’m thrilled that that kind of freedom is in the text.
Video above: Paul Gilbert’s short dream sequences for Rufus Norris’s original 1992 production of The Lizzie Play at Arts Threshold in London.
CS: Carter wrote another short story about Lizzie Borden entitled ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’. Did you consider including this in your stage adaptation? Would this fit comfortably with ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’?
DS: I love ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’, it deserves its own all circus, all tap dancing, all big top spotlight. Didn’t get to read it until well after the first production of the Lizzie play, and did briefly consider performing it as a prologue. With puppets. And tap shoes. And a tiger…a really big tiger…
CS: Nona, could you talk about the context of this play, specifically the Women@RADA 100? Why was The Lizzie Play selected for the programme and what was it about the figure of Lizzie Borden that was appealing? How does the story of Lizzie Borden speak to issues of gender inequality?
“Women@RADA was founded a couple of years ago to be a pressure group within RADA to try and highlight the inequality in the profession” (Nona Shepphard).
Nona Shepphard: Women@RADA was founded a couple of years ago to be a pressure group within RADA to try and highlight the inequality in the profession; to get work written and realized by women read or performed and generally be a talking shop for all related issues; we felt it important particularly for our female students, that these issues are raised and discussed; Lizzie was read last year as part of the 100 plays by women series and proved very popular; so Women@RADA felt that they would like to produce it as fully as possible in the RADA Festival this year.
Lizzie Borden was a cause célèbre at the time and has remained so ever since; the issues surrounding the deaths and her subsequent trial are fascinating; my friend who studied Law at Cambridge in the 1980’s said they examined the case in their jurisprudence course; the consensus at that time was that she was acquitted because the jury simply could not believe that a ‘nice’ church-going young woman could do such a thing. The judge led the jury very strongly away from her guilt and said they could only convict if they were as sure as if they had seen her do it with their own eyes…
“My interest in terms of the inequality issue centres around women’s freedom of movement, occupation and expression” (Nona Shepphard).
My interest in terms of the inequality issue centres around women’s freedom of movement, occupation and expression; women of ‘their kind’ did/could not take up a profession, nor have any ambition except the marriage mart; thus, they had absolutely nothing to do except what? Visit the deserving poor? Lizzy locks herself in her room for hours. ‘What does she do in there?’ asks her father, ‘sleep? Sew? Tidy? Stare into space?’
In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman published in New England in 1892, we see at first hand the descent into psychosis of a young woman diagnosed by her husband; as a form of treatment, the unnamed woman is forbidden from working, and is encouraged to eat well and get plenty of exercise and air, so she can recuperate from what he calls a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’, a diagnosis common to women in that period.
CS: Deirdre, were there any particular challenges in adapting Angela Carter’s story for the stage? She once referred to her writing as “overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose”. How did you adapt her writing for the stage?
DS: Carter is a wordsmith, a wordwright – she’s one of the few authors whose words I hear when I read; her muscular, acrobatic prose just sparkles with the joy of saying, with sheer delight at speaking these towering confections of language in one place and raw, gutsy, vulgarities in others. I felt like I knew, was related to, people with this same facility and joy in language – so though I wanted to pare back some of that language to the bone in order to tell the story simply, the bones were beautiful. And complex. I tried to develop a language that would work in conversation with her text. If I couldn’t wrestle the words into rhythms that chilled me or made me laugh, I found words of my own. Structurally, I embraced the meandering dream logic of her story and tried to clarify the timeline of events as it twisted back on itself or leapt forward. Our timeline reflects the intensity, rather than the chronology of events or of ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, the increasing gravity of the axe and the incidents that built such intolerable pressure in the Borden household.
“I embraced the meandering dream logic of her story and tried to clarify the timeline of events as it twisted back on itself or leapt forward” (Deirdre Strath).
CS: Did you consult other texts, historical or fictional, about Lizzie Borden in preparation for the play?
DS: At first I used only the Angela Carter story and the rhymes I’d heard growing up. When that needed fleshing out, so I looked at some historical records and a book called Goodbye Lizzie Borden threw itself in my way, a lawyer writing about the legal mess that was the Borden trial that also contained the cat incident, related to him by a still living niece of Abigail Durfee Borden (Lizzie’s first victim, stepmother and Borden’s second wife). I chose not to look at work that seemed to offer only speculation.
CS: Nona, could you talk about how the cast were selected? I gathered during the Q&A that some of the actors are teachers at the RADA.
NS: The ethos of the RADA Festival is to give stage time to RADA graduates and the ‘RADA family’, so their work (new and not so new) can be seen and supported. As such I went straight to Lottie Latham (Lizzie Borden), a RADA graduate whose work I know; Michelle Chadwick (Emma Borden), a RADA graduate whom I had directed and now teaches and directs at RADA; Tim Hardy (Andrew Borden), a RADA graduate who now teaches and directs at RADA; Rose O’Loughlin (Bridget Sullivan), a RADA graduate whom I had directed; Annie Tyson (Abigail Borden) is one of our three Acting teachers, and like many of the RADA staff is also a working actor; Jessica Turner (Alice Russell) trained at Central but teaches and directs at RADA; and John O’Mahony (John V. Morse) trained at Webber Douglas and has nothing to do with RADA but is an actor I have worked with in the past. I admire and value the work of all these actors and I must say it has been an absolute delight working with them and seeing them realize the play so clearly and dynamically.
CS: Could you also talk about the rehearsals: how long did you have to prepare for the play and did you employ any particular techniques as part of the rehearsals?
NS: We had very little time to get The Lizzie Play on stage. We began rehearsals on the 12th June and had our technical rehearsal on the 30th and first night on the 1st. Because of the cast’s prior commitments, we probably had about six days when we were all together; in other plays this wouldn’t matter so much but in this, where everyone is on at the same time, it proved quite tricky and at times I had to abandon rehearsals as there was nothing I could do; however the cast got on with working on lines and doing scenes around this.
“I knew I wanted to make very strong pictures almost like a Victorian family album with these strange ghosts in the corner or the foreground…” (Nona Shepphard)
I knew that I wanted to use James Hesford’s music, so in early rehearsals I would put out the furniture, play the music and encourage the cast to populate the stage and work without words in and around the ‘house’; thus the chorus of the ‘watchers’ began to form and the tedium of the daily lives of the three ‘watched’ came into focus; we all got a real sense of the quality and atmosphere of the house and the piece. I knew I wanted to make very strong pictures almost like a Victorian family album with these strange ghosts in the corner or the foreground…
CS: Lottie, what did you do to prepare for the role of Lizzie?
Lottie Latham: As mentioned by Nona, we had very little time in rehearsals where the whole cast was all together which meant we found the characters on our feet as opposed to lengthy improvisations and interrogative conversation. As much as I would have loved more time to prepare in that way, Nona is wonderful at creating shapes and then allowing the actors to fill those with their instinct and ideas. It was a very immediate way of working and I really enjoyed that. I did a bit of research too, some reading around Lizzie Borden and the trial, although I was keen to be mostly informed by the brilliant script and allow that to create the character rather than trying to accurately recreate a historical figure.
CS: Was there any discussion of how to play Lizzie, given the ambiguity surrounding her: despite being acquitted, she is often assumed to be guilty in the collective imagination.
“I think Lottie and I both wanted to give the audience room to make up their own minds about her” (Nona Shepphard).
NS: We didn’t do much sitting around and discussing Lizzie as we didn’t have much time; we did some of course, but I prefer to see what an actor offers on the floor and work from there; we worked from scene to scene to bring out what we thought was in the writing and the story and didn’t pay too much mind to making it all add up; in Deirdre’s hands, Lizzie is very changeable – both at home and abroad, with her friend and sister and later in court – she is seen to have ‘odd’ behaviour – ‘these Borden girls are peculiar’ is the verdict of their peers; she sleep walks and has lapses of memory (or says she does); I think Lottie and I both wanted to give the audience room to make up their own minds about her – Lottie needed to make a decision internally but I didn’t necessarily need to know that…
CS: Lottie, were there any particular challenges in playing Lizzie?
LL: Well Lizzie is quite a challenging character! I think the thing I found hardest was that Lizzie is really on her own in the play and her journey through it is a very solitary one. Also the stakes are very high for her from the get go and she’s always on the edge of rage or one of her funny turns and it’s hard to play that energy truthfully so I had to find a way through that. Nona really nuanced the oddness of Lizzie’s character!
CS: How did this role compare with your previous work?
“I relish playing strong, complex women and Deidre has written a play full of them” (Lottie Latham).
LL: It was a real privilege to play such a rich part and I certainly have never played a character like that before. I relish playing strong, complex women and Deidre has written a play full of them. That’s the kind of work I like to do, though often it’s still the case that women play second fiddle to men in theatre and I certainly feel that the work that’s been available to me has been shaped by inequality. I’m very proud to have worked with Women@Rada which fights to redress the balance.
CS: What might contemporary society make of Lizzie’s case? Would we diagnose her with some kind of pathological illness?
NS: I think we would; whether neurotic or psychotic is a matter of opinion; she is certainly not ‘normal’; but whether she is mad or bad is a question we did talk about as people in general have preferred and still do prefer to think of women as mad rather than bad.
DS: Well, I wonder. There’s probably a Marxist diagnosis that’s just as valid. Something to do with unbearable oppression resulting in inevitable violence. I wonder the same about Hedda Gabler.
CS: In both Carter’s story and in your adaptation of it, Lizzie is said to be menstruating, a theme that is even more prominent in Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. I wonder if any of you have any thoughts on this and how it bears on the story of Lizzie Borden and, more generally, gender equality.
NS: One of my favourite lines in the play is Alice talking in response to Lizzie’s being affected by her period: ‘Yes…well, it might have been a contributing factor. Lucky it doesn’t hit ev’ryone that way…’ I think that sums it up.
DS: Well, before I came to London, in 1981, there were two British court cases that made it to the papers in NY – two women ‘walked free’ from a murder and an attempted murder when it was successfully argued that PMT/hormonal imbalance affected their judgement and forced them to act out of character. Feminists and jurists were divided on the subject, similar cases were being brought in the States…it was in the air. I think it is as dangerous to blame someone’s actions on their biology as it is to pretend that biology isn’t sometimes flawed, and doesn’t affect our judgement. I think Lizzie’s well of anger was plumbed much deeper, but it might have been tinged with blood. Of her own.
CS: Might we see/read Lizzie as a feminist or proto-feminist? What would a feminist reading of this play/story look like?
“[A]s soon as Lizzie hears her dream of a farm with her sister is impossible without a man and marriage, seeds of feminism sprout. […] The play and the story elucidate the minutiae of oppression, financial, sartorial, limitations of agency and opportunity…” (Deirdre Strath)
DS: Is there any other way to see her? Her madness or badness can’t be separated from her situation. Carter’s Lizzie doesn’t mention chattel; ours does, ours makes her awareness a little more vocal. But Carter DOES say loud and clear and hilariously that Borden owns all the other women through birth, marriage or contract. Is that not a brutal, matter of factual, coolly outraged assessment of patriarchal oppression? The narrator’s a feminist, at least. Forgive the mansplaining…as soon as Lizzie hears her dream of a farm with her sister is impossible without a man and marriage, seeds of feminism sprout. Not that I advocate axe murder as a cure for oppression. The play and the story elucidate the minutiae of oppression, financial, sartorial, limitations of agency and opportunity…
CS: The play opens with a rendition of ‘Three Blind Mice’ as Lizzie, her father, and step-mother all appear on the stage wearing blindfolds. Could you talk about this opening? Where did the idea come from?
DS: The story and the historical event, the true story, immediately struck me as having a sense of inevitability. It was an American classical tragedy, the characters blind to their flaws, their actions leading inexorably to a catastrophic decision. I can be pretty literal, so, blindfolds. And a chorus, a polyphony of voices curious, prurient, accurate, mythologizing – manipulating the story. I’m very aware that much/most of what we know has been tainted by opinion and speculation. The case was one of the first huge newspaper sensations. The chorus appeared to me as news hungry flies infesting the corpses…I think I unkindly compared them to certain members of the tabloid press. I first heard about Lizzie Borden in the playground, and it seemed like nursery rhymes and fairy tales – which are not nice and last for a reason – were the best language, best music to speak with. I hear music in everything, the rhymes were a way to codify it, lock us into a particular ambivalent cosy/uncanny feeling.
“The story and the historical event, the true story, immediately struck me as having a sense of inevitability. It was an American classical tragedy” (Deirdre Strath).
CS: I noticed a number of differences between Carter’s story and your adaptation. Could you talk about some of these? For example, the play appears to suggest that Lizzie was sexually abused by her father. Where did this idea come from?
DS: It is possible to read that scene as Borden’s hatred of Lizzie’s femininity, his rage at her not being the son he needs. And I’m sure that’s in there even if there is desire. To me, all actions have a logic, a pattern. People are puzzles. Have you ever/never asked yourself what would drive you to murder? Angela Carter’s story is absolutely, viscerally brilliant at setting the stage for the murders, at painting the hot and crushing day, at giving us a scratch and sniff and gag at the smell of the past. The day, the environment itself is murderous.
Then she gives us little clues about behaviour (and thus personality). Lizzie is smart and able, not a trapped and brilliant Hedda Gabler, but a useful, charitable and active citizen. She has her bills paid, does a lot on Daddy’s dime, but she hasn’t the money, or marriage, or agency to move out into her own home. Carter’s Lizzie is kept at home, kept dependent and childlike. She’s given to sleep walking, moments ‘when the mind misses a beat.’ She’s given to moments of dissociation, nostalgia for her real mother, a sort of blind obliviousness Carter terms ‘peculiar spells’. Once when she wakes with soap in her hand and molasses on her feet, there are obscenities scrawled in soap on the window, someone has pissed and shat her father’s bed, slashed at his clothes. Stolen other people’s things, but damaged only his. She is calm, still waters, but her face occasionally burns ‘mottled red’ with rage. ‘Cool scrupulosity’ has her call her stepmother ‘Mrs. Borden’. The truth, and nothing but. Everyone agrees she loves her father, and her father loves her. He gives her, not Emma, extra money for finer clothes. He sends her, not Emma, on a European tour.
Carter doesn’t say, but I read abuse; my mind asked whether he might be buying her silence and why, what harm against Lizzie could be so damaging that murder was the only escape? My mental arithmetic (and cases appearing in the courts when I was writing, of women killing their abusers) found abuse in the equation. Actors search like detectives for the reasons their characters do as they do. I found something I felt was implicit in Angela Carter’s story and amplified it – the actors in this production have further amplified things implicit in my script, too. It’s what we do. And I don’t think good men realise just how much casual sexual expectation and even threat there is in every interaction for some women, especially those who become aware of their objectification early in life.
“Angela Carter’s story is absolutely, viscerally brilliant at setting the stage for the murders, at painting the hot and crushing day, at giving us a scratch and sniff and gag at the smell of the past” (Deirdre Strath).
CS: Would any of you be keen to adapt other works by Angela Carter? If so, which texts would you love to do?
NS: Any of them; I think Carter has a wonderful, vivid, playful and irreverent imagination.
DS: All. Any. She’s too wonderful. I first practised adapting on her ‘Puss-in-Boots’, the sexiest panto I have ever read. That adaptation never made it out of my bedroom, and I would return to it in a heartbeat. I see it as a chamber musical – I know Angela Carter bequeathed writers the opportunity to set her work even as an escapade on ice, but I have more humble ambitions. She gave me her permission to adapt ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ in the winter of 1991/2. I know I’m going to ask her estate permission to work on other pieces someday.
CS: Thank you all for taking the time to speak with me.
Nona Shepphard is a freelance writer and director, with over a hundred and fifty productions and forty commissioned plays to her credit. She is Associate Director of the RADA, and International Consultant at the Lir Academy in Dublin. She wrote the adaptation, book and lyrics for Therese Raquin (Finborough Theatre, transferring to the Park Theatre London in 2015) and Draupadi, Princess of Fire for The Sujata Banerjee Dance Company. She spent Autumn 2016 in Manila where she created and directed The Tempest Re-Imagined at PETA Theatre, a fusion of Shakespeare’s play with survivors’ stories from the catastrophic hurricane Haiyan in 2013. She has recently returned from San Antonio, Texas, where she directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her production of Combustion by RADA graduate Asif Khan is currently on tour.
Deirdre Strath originally trained at the RADA and now works extensively as a writer and performer. Besides The Lizzie Play, her work includes Waking Beauty, Rosa Carnivora, The People Downstairs directed by Rufus Norris, A Cautionary Tale at National Theatre Studio, Betty Has To Go Now for the Solo Theatre Festival & RADA Fest. Her acting credits include Jeeves and Wooster (ITV), Simon Gray’s Unnatural Pursuits (BBC TV), Home Free (directed by Kathy Burke) and the West End world premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Morgan.
Lottie Latham is a London-based actress who studied at the RADA and has appeared in a number of works for both stage and radio. In addition to playing Lizzie Borden in The Lizzie Play, Lottie has appeared in The Secret Life of Sally, Sweet Eros, and The Mousetrap.