Moll Flanders comes home as Colchester Mercury stages premiere
- Credit: Archant
Moll Flanders is one Colchester’s leading fictional figures. Her life and that of her real-life inspiration Elizabeth Atkins form the heart of a new play. Arts editor Andrew Clarke talks to director Ryan McBryde about this genre-bending production
With the runaway success of his novel Robinson Crusoe, best-selling author Daniel Defoe should have been riding high, basking in his new found fame and riches.
However, the 18th century author was up to his ears in debt and desperate to write another blockbuster – quickly.
Desperate to evade his creditors in London, Defoe relocated to Colchester, acquiring a 99 year lease on Tubswick farm at Mile End, to the north of Colchester town centre, in 1722.
It is believed that it was here that he met the notorious courtesan Elizabeth Atkins, raised in Colchester, and by all accounts fell enthusiastically into her bed. Atkins was a charismatic, resourceful woman, and their pillow talk, which Elizabeth punctuated with tales of her action-packed life, gave him a great idea.
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He would turn her into the heroine of his next great novel – Moll Flanders. She was so bedazzling, so engaging that he was convinced that the book would fly off the shelves faster than Robinson Crusoe. What he hadn’t bargained on was becoming entangled in Elizabeth’s tumultuous intrigues himself, or falling in love with her…
Now, the Colchester Mercury Theatre is staging the world premiere of playwright Nick Perry’s unfaithful adaptation of Defoe’s novel that undoubtedly plays as fast and loose with historical accuracy as the book did.
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It does however provide audiences with a musical mashup of 18th century bawdiness and 21st century humour. Director Ryan McBryde, says that the Mercury’s Moll promises to take Dan on the ride of a lifetime.
So does Colchester feature in the play?
RM: “Not in a direct way. In our play Defoe meets Elizabeth Atkins in Newgate gaol where she has been imprisoned for being a prostitute and he interviews her and that’s how we tell the story. She takes him backwards and forwards through her life.
There’s a sequence in the book and in our play when she is sent to an orphanage in Colchester and she stays in the town until the age of 22. After the orphanage closes down she goes to live with the Chumley’s and he is the Mayor of Colchester. She falls in love with one of his sons but is forced to marry the other one and moves to London after that.
It’s obviously based on a classic novel but this is a brand new adaptation?
RM: “Absolutely. This is a new play by Nick Perry which Daniel (Buckroyd) brought to me and asked me to direct because he wanted to do the story of Moll Flanders. I read it and immediately started to laugh. All I can say is that Nick has captured the spirit of both Monty Python and Blackadder. It’s very theatrical, there’s a lot of engagement with the audiences. The characters are very knowing. There’s a lot of stopping the action and going back and exploring other parts of the story that don’t make immediate sense. All the characters are larger than life and Nick has collected together all the best bits of a long detailed novel.
How have you approached it?
RM: “It’s very knowing. The performers have an awareness of what they are doing, of what the audience is seeing and, I think, everyone loves the device of being able to step in and out of the action. Also the text is quite modern and anachronistic – there’s references to ‘Bling’ and ‘Talk To The Hand’ – which give it a very contemporary feel. We’ve done that with the music as well. We’ve taken modern songs and madrigralised them. We’ve got a bit of Sister Sledge in there that’s now a madrigal and we’ve taken songs from the era and folk-rocked them up. So we taken inspiration from Steeleye Span and Bellowhead and given the play its own soundscape.
From the sounds of it, it seems that Blackadder appears to have been a stylistic inspiration?
RM: “What is brilliant about that series, particularly the last series set in the First World War, is that they were able to mine so much comedy from such a tragic situation, but what sets it apart is that they never compromised the pathos. The drama of the situation is always there – it underpins everything. It’s the feel we are looking for in Moll Flanders. Our story is one of survival. It’s about a woman born into the bottom of society but she comes into contact with all these high born local ladies and she models herself on them and the rest of the story is her ruthlessly pursuing that dream. But, being a woman a her options were limited. Her choices were either to become a servant or to marry well and that’s what she chose to do.
Moll Flanders by Nick Perry at the Colchester Mercury from September 28-October 13.