Samuel Pepys described Margaret Cavendish as “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman.” She was certainly an unusual woman for the 17th century, or indeed any era.
A duchess and a writer whose oeuvre included science, poetry, philosophy and one of the earliest examples of science fiction, she was the first woman to actively seek publication under her own name.
A lady’s work being performed on the stage was another matter, however, and The Unnatural Tragedy, like all of Cavendish’s plays, was written to be read, not staged. Unsurprisingly, it’s a touch bizarre, consisting of two stories running in parallel: there’s a brother’s desire for his sister and an old gentleman’s gaslighting of his long-suffering wife and subsequent remarriage, whilst a group of hyper-articulate ‘sociable virgins’ offer caustic commentary on the human condition.
Performed in modern dress (without too much reliance on technology to bring it ‘up to date’) and played against ivy-covered walls, Graham Watts’ production briskly slices between the short scenes, featuring fluid performances from the cast of 13 in roles that largely defy logical motivations and naturalistic characterisation.
The incest story contains echoes of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and the suggestion that the Bible is a man-made construct rather than the word of God is a startling provocation for the 17th century. Whilst Watts’ production probably won’t inspire a rush of Margaret Cavendish premieres, it’s always good to be reminded of the many forgotten female playwrights and clever women of history hiding in plain sight.