‘They are dancing about their relationship’. The audience chuckles as the words flicker across the TV screens positioned above the stage at The Old Vic, while two figures in 17th century garb perform a morose, slow-mo ballet.
The wry message is just one of the ways 17c draws attention to its own construction, never allowing the audience to fully escape into the past. The dancers represent the famous diarist Samuel Pepys and his wife Bess.
At over 1 million words long, we learn, Pepys’ diary offers unparalleled first person insight into daily life in Restoration England. It’s also a diary in the traditional sense, in that it was never intended to be read. Petty quarrels, bowel troubles, and lecherous liaisons are all recorded in gloriously unfiltered (and sometimes disturbing) detail.
The text looms large in Big Dance Theater’s production, with three players assuming Pepys’ role during the course of the show. Each monologue begins with the date of the diary entry, though this sense of temporal linearity is almost immediately disrupted. 1690s slang is interspersed with modern day parlance. Ostentatious wigs, intricate ruffs, and sumptuous jacquard prints are worn with 21st century athleisure. And, in one of the strongest scenes, when Bess reads allowed from Margaret Cavendish’s 1668 play The Convent of Pleasure, the text is rejigged to reference Judith Butler and post-structural feminism.
This brings us to 17c’s greatest triumph; it gives a voice to the women in Pepys’ life. As Bess, Elizabeth DeMent’s solo dances are bold and expressive, whether articulating the character’s desire for her dancing master, or the indignity of having her own diary destroyed by her husband. Then there’s the two millennial women, our anchors to the present day, who debate what to make of the diarist’s unrepentant chronicling of his own predatory sexual behaviour, on their Samuel Pepys fansite.
With such flourishes, what is absent in Pepys’ work is rendered just as vivid as what was chronicled. The elision of boundaries between past and present, though at times disorientating, also cleverly invites identification between the 17th century diary and 21st century life — be it the enduring spectre of predatory men in power, or the human compulsion to record life's minutiae and bear witness to one's own existence.
17c runs until 29 September 2018 at The Old Vic. Tickets can be purchased here.