Just Like Dowagers: Mothers and Daughters In Vile Bodies

Our last and fifth day of workshops consisted of a return to some old ideas and an exploration of some new ones; with a pack of cards we explored power relationships, with Ryuichi Sakamoto we explored how the characters perceive themselves, what it is that helps them get up in the morning, and how they think. It was a fun day, an experimental close to an experimental week.

Since the week began the degree has started again and rehearsals have begun in earnest. Every rehearsal has differed so far as we tackle a different scene and different ideas fundamentally at their crux. Our first rehearsal visited The Shepherd’s Hotel, where our focus was on the lives of Lottie, Doge and Ginger. Our second looked into the world of Simon and Miles. Tonight’s rehearsal was an exploration of Mary and Martha and their scenes in the play.

There are some consistent themes throughout this play: love, money, fame, hope, change, redemption, corruption, but one of the most startling things about the characters we have in this play is the relationship of parents and children.

In the whole of the six main characters we have two parents, and out of the rest of them we don’t seem to have a whole family between them (with the exception of Archie, but then the day someone asks him about his home life is the day the world ends.) Agatha’s mother died in childbirth, an event that has placed a heavy burden on her father and her’s relationship and sent her into the care of a rich maiden-aunt. Miles’ father has eloped to Vienna with his mistress, leaving Margot Metroland to deal with an empty house and a need to fill the void with drugs and alcohol. Adam’s father is distant, his mother potentially dead. Nina’s mother has disappeared into the void of time and her father is far from the kindest figure in the play. And Simon? Well him and his parents don’t really talk anymore. That’s what you get when you’re a cat’s paw (and, you know, a prick.)

Therefore in the play we only meet two parents; the Colonel and Lady Metroland, both of whom serve comic purposes in the play. However the play is littered with surrogate parental figures- the Drunk Major, Lord Monomark, the Prime Minister and his wife, Lottie Crump and even Melrose Ape all step into the breach to fill a world with adults; a world that would admittedly have a constricted older generation thanks to the first great war.

Lily Brewer, who plays Lady Metroland, also plays Mary, who is the Saffy of this Absolutely Fabulous play. Mary is rich, but Mary is not a bright young thing; she is a dowdy and frumpy girl who’s mother has crushed all the fun out of her. When her middle-class and ambitious friend Martha finds her, it’s Martha’s chance to enter the circle of the fashionable set. As we see in the scenes in 10 Downing Street however, Martha may want the BYTs, but they don’t want her:

Martha
Oh Simon, how bogus!

Agatha
Miles, did you hear that?

Miles
I do believe I did!

Mary meanwhile hates this world she is thrust into, but due to a desire to be liked and a desire to do what she feels she ought, she goes along with the utterly disgusting people that are Agatha and Miles, and ends up in conflict with her stern and dour mother. Lily was quick to spot similarities between Mary and Lady Metroland.

Margot, like so many women in the play, was a debutante who came out at 18 and was quickly snatched up by the industrialist tycoon Lord of Metroland, Mr Malpractice. Within the year Margot was fully domesticated and lumbered with a child, and although she loved Miles very much she hated her parents bitterly for selling her into this life so quickly. When her husband ran off with his mistress (for he had an heir, and therefore no further need for Margot, whose youthful looks were drained by motherhood) she was left with her son. So when Miles went off on the grand tour, and then to Oxford where he met Adam, and then moved into the family’s London townhouse, Margot could not have dealt with it worse; needing to fill the Miles-shaped void, she took to drugs and alcohol in a way like she never had before.

Like Mary, Margot is a victim of doing what one ‘ought’, as are so many women in Vile Bodies, including Nina. Margot is not a good mother, but she is the only matriarch in the play who is actually benign, and in no way corrupt. Mrs Brown, played by the wonderful and scintillatingly-voiced Zoe Lambrakis, is a good mother but a cold and heartless dragon who turns her house into a clockwork asylum (intriguingly, the real wife of Neville Chamberlain was actually a feisty and ambitious character- more akin to Zoe’s last big role, Lady Macbeth, than Mrs Brown is.)

Zoe is our resident player of mothers. Unlike Lily, who’s talent for playing desperation comes out so wonderfully in the rabbit-in-the-headlights Mary and who’s talent for aged flamboyance explodes like a firework in Lady Metroland, Zoe has spent her time playing Shakespearean roles at university, and steps into Vile Bodies playing three very different characters, but all, at heart, mothers. Mrs Brown is the stoic iron lady, whilst Lottie is a tart with a hart who mothers Adam but is, essentially, prostituting her motherly love; because if he can’t pay, he can’t enjoy it. However, there is no other woman in the play so protective of Adam’s wellbeing- she arrives to try and get Adam the money they both so desperately need, and leaves having been torn from his side by her Jewish heritage, only to be stuck with the woman he hates and she is little closer to- Nina Blount. Lottie, whenever she bustles about the stage, is a charming and warm character.

Quite unlike Melrose Ape, therefore. Melrose, Zoe’s third character, is the most wicked and disgusting woman alive. Not only a zealous evangelist and open nazi-sympathiser, she is also a complete hypocrite. Melrose is like the world’s worst stage mother; she has erased any history she once had, though we know vaguely that she crept up from a small swamp-ridden family in Alabama or thereabouts, and having experienced evangelism at a young age decided it was her calling. However, she quickly realised wicked men only listened to one thing; youthful beauty. Melrose began collecting beautiful young faith-filled and singing girls from across America, her ‘angels’, who have always borne five names; Divine Discontent, Prudence, Hope, Fortitude and Chastity (although other angel lines may have died out.) These five lines of angels, like the Doctor, or James Bond, have been ‘passed down’ whenever an angel ‘retires’. Just before the play begins, Divine Discontent has been thrown out, Fortitude has become the oldest member, and a new Divine Discontent arrives- a 14-year-old southern belle with a love of God that reminds Melrose of herself in younger days- played by the brilliant Elly Parsons.

Melrose Ape is the sort of woman with scrapbooks of photos and articles about her girls, maybe even collecting the odd scrap of hair. Her life is devoted to the girls she exploits and literally sells off to the highest bidder. When they inconveniently get old or pregnant, she ejects them from the safety of her act.

Although her underlings are exploited and quite frankly raped by her clients, they are safe in employment and finance with her. Though not given much freedom or money they enjoy a life of plenty in a time of scarcity. They have played for the greatest names and in the greatest halls in the world. Before the play, they have just finished performing for Mussolini himself.

But the angels are corrupt and twisted little women; wise beyond their years, music is now a strict job they must perfect, sex is life, and religion is a paradox they can’t understand- how can it be the thing that preaches the sanctity of the body can also desecrate their young forms via conversion? Melrose Ape is a horrible, twisted phantom of a woman. One need only look at Fortitude, a stuck-up Regina George who is 18 and on her way to the glue factory, aware she is on her last legs, ready to be replaced by the smart-arsed and contrary Hope, and how contorted her mind is to see what Melrose does to the people about her. Even Divine Discontent, who arrived with a belief in the goodness of the word of God, has become another victim of the fascist machine that is Ape. She is not a character to sympathise with; she needs no backstory, she needs no love. She is a hypocrite and a bitch.

Yet Melrose Ape is the holy fool of this tragedy. She is the first to speak out and say that the Bright Young Things are a hedonistic and foolish set. Before Simon, Tiger, Archie or Adam can even think the same thought, Melrose is already being silenced by Lady Metroland, a mother figure who, whilst loving, couldn’t give a shit what drugs her son is taking.

And also, the exposure and prostitution of the angels has horrid parallels to the idea of debutantes; whilst the debutante world is not as exploitative or ethically unbalanced, in both girls are sent into the world to find men, and if they don’t do their job as they wish, then a cruel state of pariah-dom may be all you can expect. Martha has had a few years with no male success, Agatha has too but she cares little for meeting a man. Mary’s getting on even at 19, Nina took the wrong man in Adam, and Margot regrets how quickly she entered the world of female servitude. In the end, what is so different from Margot and Fortitude, except that Fortitude knows exactly what she has to look forward to?

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