The theatre of life, Susan Budd

Peter Wells
Random House, $34.95,
ISBN 1869415833

With its gorgeously frilled and furbelowed Victorian crinolines, melodrama and high camp, Iridescence is strongly reminiscent of Peter Wells’s screenplay for Desperate Remedies, which blew the mandatory bucolic naturalism of New Zealand film out of the water a decade or two ago. While that was a hectically technicolour over-the-top romp, his latest novel is rooted in a more sober reality: that of the hard graft and ugly rawness of pioneering life in a provincial town.

The language, however, is rich in metaphor and simile and as ornate as Victorian costume and architecture. A jeweller is seen “embossing a showy farewell” to his customer; a tone of voice is “a thin line of filigreed silver”. Open almost any page and find a deliciously decorative phrase. Scattered, they add lightness and brightness to the text, but piled too thickly, they occasionally lend an overwrought quality to the prose.

In a tragi-comedy of shifting identities and indeterminate gender, Wells spins the setting to the demi monde of London theatre, a fabulous world in which all that glisters is most definitely not gold but sequins, which sparkle briefly until tarnished or fallen underfoot. Like the central motif of the novel, the gorgeous earrings of diamonds with a cabochon ruby that forms the body of a fly, dirt, rank sweat and stale bodily secretions underlie the frills and gloss.

As the central metaphor of Iridescence, theatre is like the Pantoland of which Angela Carter writes (in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders): “the carnival of the unacknowledged and the fiesta of the repressed [in which] everything is excessive and gender is variable.” Theatre is both carnal and transcendent, having the power to briefly transform the lives of performers and audience alike by lending colour and vitality to the workaday world of London maidservants and early settlers who do not perceive the grotesque stage makeup or the coarseness and stench of the brilliant costumes.

Like a traditional play, Iridescence is structured in three acts (or books) that gather pace to highly dramatic climaxes. In a low-key opening, Book I presents Samuel Barton living “like someone tossed out of a fairy story” in penury in 1871 Napier, a dusty outpost of civilisation. A remittance man, paid a subsistence sum by his respectable family to stay away from England, he is dogged by a scandal that is only slowly revealed. Living in a tiny bedroom of a worker’s cottage, the only clue to his past is two steel engravings – of a theatre and of two doe-eyed actresses. With his air of faded prettiness, close-set eyes, small, weak mouth and long-nailed slim hands, Samuel is an unlikely pioneer. Rather than driving bullock trains, he whiles away the long, hot days drinking cheap brandy.

Unpleasant as he finds the snot-nosed children and dirty curs that surround him, the  “needy genteel” that overload Napier’s streets are even less to Samuel’s taste. There are almost as many piano teachers as there are instruments, and he is unable to evade the advances of one, who leads him to a dull travesty of the theatre: an interminable magic lantern lecture on the marvels of India, which is only redeemed from utter tedium by the wit of Wells’s description and the unexpected conflagration that forms its climax.

Wells excels in his female characterisations. Although the males are resplendent peacocks or fluttering faux femmes fatales, it is the women with their work-roughened hands and shabby clothes who lend substance and purpose to their world. The redoubtable piano teacher Madeleine Perrett, slaving in her half-acre garden in order to feed her mother and wastrel brother, celebrates the independence that she prefers to her status as a “pauperish relation back at home”. Despite her appalling taste in clothes (her party attire consists of a flounced brown striped dress, frilled with turquoise and dusky pink), she has the attraction of “rank, fierce sexuality” and absolute integrity.

While the bald but hirsute jeweller/Shokhet ritual butcher Solomon Linz is vividly drawn, his animal lust constantly at war with his intellectual curiosity and romantic love for his wife, it is she who is more interesting and more subtly characterised. The passages of both women to success and self-sufficiency in an alien land stand in strong relief to Samuel’s own journey to peace and contentment as a draper’s assistant, the lodestone of style to Hawke’s Bay matrons.

In the central London section, it is the staunch maidservant Eliza Clarke who acts in strong counterpoint to the posturing, whirling players. Drawn to the glamour and tuneful mezzo-soprano of transvestite actress/songstress Ernest Boulton, she also perceives his sweetness, generosity, and loyalty and becomes his fierce defender.

Inspired by Wells’s 1974 doctoral studies, Book II is based on the real life scandal of Boulton and Park, arrested at the Strand Theatre in 1870 for their appearances in drag outside the protection of the theatre. Their trial was greeted with fulminations in the establishment press against the moral decline their existence presaged, and they can be seen as martyrs for the cause of homosexual freedom, preceding the trial of Oscar Wilde some 25 years later. Their tale is not told with earnest attention to detail, but with panache, humour and eroticism. In a Wildean caprice, Park’s drag name of Fanny is given to Ernest, and Lord Arthur Clinton, son of the Duke of Newcastle and a hero of the Siege of Lucknow, is renamed Frederick, a splendidly saturnine name for the Mr Rochester-type role he performs, with “magnetic, slightly metallic charm”.

“Dirty and flirty”, they all inhabit the twilight world of the theatre, a world in which appearances are slippery and sexual licence the norm. The erotics of dress are given free rein, with gorgeous descriptions of silks and laces, falls and ringlets of rich false hair. It is not hard to understand why cossies are always Fanny’s favourite part of preparation for a role, no matter how greasy and grubby they are away from the limelight. As, in an erotic theatrical set piece, the trio disport themselves in a balloon over London, short scenes are interspersed of Eliza scurrying to Petticoat Lane in order to sell one of Fanny’s stage costumes.

Although the balloon can be seen as emblematic of freedom and transcendence, their orgiastic and expensive play seems petty self-indulgence when set against the huge efforts of Eliza to be “decent”. Indeed, her bargaining to sell the gown has an almost mystical quality, as gold is exchanged for a symbol of the magic of the primitive rite of theatre.

The courtroom scenes are highly theatrical and treated as such by the mob attending, and by Park and Boulton, who are destroyed by the harsh, revealing daylight. The circus atmosphere is rendered in highly effective Dickensian language and images, as are the appalling privations to which they are subjected in gaol, Ernest’s suffering only ameliorated by the faithful friendship and not altogether asexual adoration of the young law clerk, Samuel Barton.

In Book III, the dark clouds of tragedy lift to reveal a magnificently theatrical backdrop of the sea and sky seen from Napier’s Bluff Hill in 1880. Shame and disgrace are replaced by a joyous resolution for the cast of characters, aided by the visit of the Royal English and Italian Opera Company with those operatic gems HMS Pinafore and Der Freischutz. Theatre once again performs its transformation of the mundane to the transcendental, which, though brief, shifts to a minute but measurable degree the perceptions of its audience.


Susan Budd is a Wellington reviewer


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