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The remarkable gender-fluid life of Chevalier D’Eon explored in 'D’Eon' at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester - review

"Bursting with history".

2018-02-14

(Above image: Shay Rowan Photography)

The Chevalier D’Eon is a remarkable early example of what might now be called ‘gender fluid’.  Born in 1728, D’Eon spent their first 49 years living as a man and the next 33 years living as a woman. They were a French diplomat, a soldier, a spy, a familiar with both the court of Louis XV and the inside of a debtors’ jail.

To any dramatist, their life is an embarrassment of riches. Krupinski, the writer and director, has gone all out to fit all of the story into one show, and that may have turned out to be a key weakness.

The premise of the play is a simple and familiar one: a great historical figure at the end of their life sets down an auto/biography penned by a scribe who can conveniently ask questions, offer challenges and generally act as the voice of the audience.

Here, this dramatic device is actually true to the events of D’Eon’s life though, where to raise £500 and free themselves from debt, they agreed to Thomas Plummer writing the story of their life. Cue a series of flashback scenes, hopefully linked thematically, that segue into the present, which is then revealed to be different in some way.

Except that D’Eon doesn’t really do this. It never quite frees itself from the present. The majority of the show is basically an interrupted monologue with a series of characters who often only briefly manifest. This is frustrating as the characters we glimpse are well drawn, vivid and often very funny.

Some of the sequences in the second half are more fully realised narratively and so are immediately more satisfying. But for sections of the piece, you’re left wondering why the play keeps bringing on sequences of characters only to have D-Eon narrate most of what they do. 

And some of the explanations themselves are too dense with European political history, as if the writer is determined to show off their research rather than focus on what is dramatic. This is perhaps the weakness of one person writing and directing.

Given this monologue format, there is a huge pressure on Kaitlin Howard to deliver as D’Eon. She is a strong presence and conveys elements of playfulness, anger, physical prowess and resentful dejection well. 

But the competence never quite becomes anything more than that. The character’s ages and genders are not demarked and detailed enough, especially when she is playing the octogenarian D’Eon. She shouts too much, moves too quickly and her elongated panting death sequence is a little on the wrong side of a Carry On death.

There are many other strong performances. Adrian Palmer and Adam Elms form a great comedy duo that it would be wonderful to see more of. Dean Anthony Fagan succeeds in throwing off his Coronation Street overalls and is great as the duplicitous diplomat Beaumarchais, and Rachel Gill-Davis serves a wonderfully dominating Madame Pompadour. William J. Holstead delivers an earnest and convincing Thomas Plummer and creates the ideal foil for Howard.

D’Eon is bursting with history, but its sides are splitting. It might have done better to focus in greater depth on less, for there is no doubting that this a journey from childhood to the grave. An excellent cast is somewhat squandered in terms of limited stage time, too much storytelling and not enough story doing.

It is, however, a considerable achievement to have researched D’Eon’s life so thoroughly and realised it for the stage so well at the always remarkable Hope Mill Theatre.

Rating: 3/5

Until 17 February

Words: Stephen M Hornby