Reviewer Cynthia Fernando combines a review of new writing with playwright Cadence Ware’s perspective on Pembroke New Cellars show Parisienne.
The choose-your-own adventure story has manifested itself in many forms of media – we have followed it in games, books, the hype of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life showing George Bailey an alternate reality. Cadence Ware’s new play brings the choose-your-own-adventure genre a lot closer to home. Parisienne is a theatrical exploration of that existential question we have all asked ourselves in our deepest moments of reflection: ‘what if?’
The central character, Ashley, gets to see what her life would have been like if she had made different choices at key moments in her life, and gets to intimately know the woman she might have become. Ashley in the present is an actress, partaking in an affair with a spoken-for man called Jack, taking the quiet moments of being backstage after a performance to reflect upon, and for the most part regret, how she got to where she is.
Ware inverts the traditional structures of stage plays, bringing the understated backstage dressing room to the forefront. What better place to expose a character’s emotional backstory then the room where one exposes themselves physically in changing outfits? What better place to explore the complicated feelings surrounding an affair than the room that is frequently the meeting place of secret lovers? Personal pictures, and brazenly-displayed undergarments, are displayed, and the colour red features heavily in the architecture. The inherent intimacy of dressing rooms, and the elegantly subtle yet inescapable intricacies in the set design of Ashling Barmes, provides the backdrop to Ashley’s life and central themes of the play: complete emotional nakedness, and raw discussion of female sexuality.
The play opens with Ashley (Zoe Belcher) walking in, pouring herself a drink in an elegant red dress and reclining on her sofa, like a stereotypical Parisienne seductress. Zoe delivers herself with all the confidence and elegance of a woman who has learned that her entire life is a performance for the enjoyment of others – it starts out very artificially constructed. As the play progresses, Zoe’s demeanour relaxes as we get to know more about her past and grow to understand why she is the way she is. From the second row of the intimate Pembroke New Cellars, I feel less like an outsider looking on to the life of a troubled woman, and more like I am in conversation with an old friend over a glass of wine.
While the transitions between scenes are not entirely seamless, with the occasional scene change often overlapping with and drowning out Zoe’s speaking, generally the play is well-structured and easy to follow. While Ashley talks us through her life as it was, Ashley II (Katie Chambers) acts out an alternative reality in real time, making choices Ashley wishes she had made. The play builds up to a scene where Ashley gets to confront Ashley II, and finds out that happiness is not as simple as making a few different choices.
A powerful theme underlying the play is the scrutiny of Ashley’s life as a woman, and in particular, the spotlight as shone on her sexual relationships, and her life as a woman is constantly viewed in light of her relationships with others. Within her family, her promiscuity is juxtaposed alongside the supposedly admirable monogamy of her younger brother Olly (Saul Barrett). Ashley regrets losing touch with her best friend Hannah (Cora Alexander), who fades from her life following her break up with Josh (Lorenzo Montani). Her interactions with Alicia (Isla Stone) mostly involve relationships, though the relationship does, in moments, pass the Bechdel test.
In particular, the most scathing criticism of her promiscuity comes from her sister Rachel (Stephanie Jat), who explicitly criticises her life revolving around men. However, Cadence’s writing is wonderfully nuanced, such that no character is made out as a villain in Ashley’s story. Even successful Rachel is shown to experience her own vulnerability as a woman in being accused of sleeping with her boss. Nothing in the play is as black and white as it seems, and there is a constant dialogue where our perceptions and judgments of other people are put on trial.
The theme of Ashley’s life as a performance is powerfully expressed in a stand-out monologue – a performance of Shakespeare’s famous ‘All the World’s A Stage’ speech. It is a performance within a performance within a performance – both in the literal sense of being an extract from a play and her role as performing for the people in her life. Like Russian dolls, layers and layers of performance. It is the climax of Ashley’s life as an object for others to consume.From that point on, Ashley begins to regain agency over her own life, a hopeful message about breaking free from the gaze of others.
One particularly intriguing character is that of Sasha (Siobhan Corbey Tobin). Cadence uses the character of Sasha as an intersection between the worlds of Ashley and Ashley II, breaking the fourth wall to both interact with Ashley from the confines of Ashley II’s timeline, and interact with the audience, exemplifying the notion that we are an active part of Ashley’s inner dialogue. Sasha is clearly a ghost from Ashley’s past that has deeply impacted her, such that she manifests physically in the present conducting herself with grace and elegance in such a way as to suggest that Ashley has stronger feelings for her. There is an underlying homoerotic sexual tension, cutting across heteronormative premises in the play. The true nature of their relationship, and how far it might have gone, is left largely to our imagination. This is one of the ways in which the play gives the audience a lot of agency to choose the course of the character’s life, a notion explicitly restated at the end.
When the object of Ashley’s affections, Jack (Oscar Ings), takes the stage, he is quite understated, wearing a simple outfit of muted tones, speaking and moving unassumingly, in direct contrast to Sasha, and for the most part he blends into the background. In a play where the main character is so haunted by her relationships with men, it is refreshingly and definitively the women who take centre-stage. This play powerfully gives agency back into the hands of the woman, awarding them with the complexity of character so often denied to them in traditional male-dominated plays, and the power to determine their own destiny.
The play is also not entirely serious and regretful, as Cadence ensures the audience are always uplifted and entertained with lighthearted intermissions of comedy, such as through the repetitive, comedic character of Chris (Daniel Quigley).
For the most part, the lighting choices expertly mirror the themes of the play, as the prominence of red light reflect the drama and passion of Ashley’s life, and her battle to be seen as more than a Parisienne ‘slut.’ My one grievance with the play is an element of lighting choice: the mirror lights. Shining blindingly back on to the audience, and casting Ashley in shadow for most of the time she is reliving her alternative life, the concept behind it is clear: the light shines back on the audience, almost as if the audience are also a part of the play.
It is hard not to appreciate the thought behind this; the notion that we are also centre-stage follows how Ashley’s process of self-reflection is one we are all too familiar with, and in our own lives, we are the main character undergoing it. However, the bright light shining directly into my eyes often made it difficult to focus. Ashley was constantly in obscurity, even when she was speaking, which often misdirected attention away from her and towards cast members conducting a scene change in bright, clear lighting. While conceptually effective, the reality of it made it difficult, at moments, to immerse oneself in the story.
Writer Cadence Ware tells me that this play is not about providing an answer to the question of ‘What if?’ Rather, it is a way of questioning why we live so much in the past, and providing us with a framework with which we can reflect on how we view ourselves – qualified by the effect of the male gaze, contemporary views about sexuality, and the tendency of women to live life as a performance. The play is a ‘choose your own adventure’ story – not just in the sense of leaving gaps in Ashley’s story to be filled in by the imagination of the audience, but by also reigniting a sense of our own human agency. I leave the theatre feeling less like an audience member and more like I have gone through a self-reflective experience. For a play that is at once thought-provoking, serious and uplifting, Parisienne is not to be missed.