Preview: The Captive

Esme Bishop 13 March 2022
Image Credit: Charlotte Bunney

“The Captive”, Édouard Bourdet’s 1926 play, tells the story of a young woman, Irene, attempting to navigate her life, relationships, and sexuality in 1920’s Paris – and it’s coming to the Corpus Playroom stage on Tuesday 15th March.

This was the first play to come to the Broadway stage that has an explicitly lesbian protagonist, inadvertently ushering in an astoundingly repressive era of American theatre: the play was shut down after only 160 performances and depictions of homosexuality on Broadway stages were consequently banned. There is fascinating drama both within and without this play, and this production seems intent on making the most out of it.

Talking to Director Rae Morris, it was clear that the historical context surrounding this play and how that interacts with 21st century perceptions of its subject matter, was of particular interest: “Well it was originally a play about like the psychological impacts of being a lesbian, and it was written by a (probably) heterosexual man – so it’s not necessarily meant to be a ‘positive’ representation of lesbianism. So, people can come and see this play because they are interested in what it would have been like one hundred years ago, and that’s a very fair thing to do.” But, Rae explained, “I think it’s kind of inevitable that we are conscious of how a 21st century audience is going to respond to it”.

This production of “The Captive” promises to strike a sensitive balance and to provoke thoughtful responses, drawing out the more empowering elements of this text through both subtle alterations of it – “we’ve cut and rearranged a fair amount of it” – but also through how it is embodied by the actors. Rae spoke about the blocking process and her vision of how she wants the dialogue of the play to come to life on stage: “quite a big part of it for me was the improvisational aspect. For the actors to do what feels comfortable and natural to them. So, rather than prescribing and blocking out really specific movements, I wanted to draw out moments – I don’t want to tell an actor to stand here and here and here: it’s more about embodying the character”.

Whilst cultivating an awareness of the text’s more (for want of a better phrase) ‘politically outdated’ elements, what seems a really nice aspect of Rae’s directorial approach is her attempts to extract and amplify all that is nuanced and sensitive and interesting about the play: “I think it would have been impossible to do if this text was very homophobic. The reinterpretation effectively is her being held captive not to her sexuality, but to homophobia – and I do think there is space for that in the text”.

When asking Rae about what the play meant to her, the answer was pleasantly surprising. On one hand, where it fits into the deeply complicated history of homophobia is something she seemed deeply interested in – but also, it’s very very romantic, very based around romance: it’s not a political play or a domestic play with a bit of romance inserted in. It is based around people’s romantic interactions with each other which has been really exciting to do as a director and really kind of challenging I think. Working not just with intimacy but intimacy at the centre of the plot.”

Intimacy is at the very crux of the play, and because of this – Corpus Playroom as a performance space is absolutely packed with a very unique kind of potential, a potential which Rae seems to be wanting to really play into: “It’s a very intimate space, and the audience is drawn much more into the play which worked really well for a play that is inherently so intimate. Corpus works well for that.” This is, after all, a play all about entrapment, enclosure, and captivity. “And in a way, actually” she continued, “the spaces we exist in don’t look like a stage”. Corpus offers a closeness and an authenticity that a conventional stage doesn’t really have, and this promises to work very dynamically with Rae’s vision for this play.

I asked Rae why it is she thinks it’s so important for “The Captive” be performed now – why pitch this play, in this moment in time? Her answer was simple but powerful: “I think it’s interesting! It’s good and intense and emotional and compelling to watch.” Nothing exists in a vacuum, this play can’t be detached from its context and from being politicised – indeed it shouldn’t. But then again, this is theatre, this is a story: “I hope the audience is drawn in by, and enjoys the emotional experience of the play”.

It’s a difficult task that Rae Morris and her production team have set themselves up for: interpreting a play that has such murky and indistinguishable authorial intentionality and  (through 21st century eyes) potentially outdated representations of lesbianism – especially in a way that is sensitive and nuanced whilst still packing a punch and remaining dramatically interesting. If the director and actors do manage to effectively strike this balance – between the emotional intensity of the play and the context that surrounds it – this production stands an excellent chance of being memorable, thought-provoking, and captivating.