We all probably know a little bit about Marie Antoinette: French Queen, big-hair, beheaded. She's perhaps most famous for coining the phrase “Let them eat cake,” but did she actually say that? While the history books have done an excellent job mythologising this powerful, yet vilified, monarch, how can we ever know who she truly was?
It's a question that’s captured the imagination of Three Birds Theatre. The historical figure has been portrayed variously as a teen icon, loving mother, draconian villain and murdered queen. “We're asking how easy is it to tear a woman from her throne?” says Anna Rodway, who along with Candace Miles and Madelaine Nunn will be examining the many facets of Marie Antoinette in LadyCake.
A world premiere, LadyCake opens next week and is one of four works selected as part of the Poppy Seed Theatre festival. Now in its second year, Poppy Seed Theatre Festival invests financially and artistically in independent artists, this year also including Attic Erratic, Hotel Now and Riot Stage, all recognised for being “tenacious, dedicated to their work, have enormous respect for each other and a solid commitment to the festival model,” says Festival co-director Scott Major.
The Three Birds Theatre trio are all 2015 Victorian College of the Arts graduates, “interested in feminine spaces and a feminine realm where stories or insecurities or vulnerabilities can come out,” says Rodway. Their previous piece, Three Birds One Cock, took three of Alfred Hitchcock's victims (from Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds) and put them all in a room together with a dead body.
In LadyCake, they’re delving into the mythology surrounding this famous woman from the 18th century, looking at her as both a public and private figure and how she came to be so demonised.
“We want to explore the representation of women in positions of power and how we talk about them, how we tear them down; put them on pedestals and like to see them fall, essentially,” says Rodway.
Given that so much of history has traditionally been written by men, Three Birds Theatre are especially interested in her vilification. “We're looking at how that came about through propaganda and pamphleting and the way that she was represented by society,” says Rodway.
“We vilify this woman saying she didn't help the poor, she didn't go out, she didn't understand what was going on outside her door, the people were starving. But the interesting question for us is how much agency did she actually have? Was she even able to leave the home? We'll never know, but creating this feminine space on stage and then tearing it down is helping us identify this dichotomy between the villain and the victim.”
Rather than any one of the actors playing Marie Antoinette, they’re examining how she was perceived through the eyes of three handmaidens. “They're getting the inside understanding of her as a woman and as someone who, literally, was sold to France to seal a deal from Austria at 14,” says Rodway.
“People viewed her having a child, people viewed her on her marriage night. There was this sense that nothing she did was seen as something that wasn't a public affair and we're trying to make parallels with the modern world, saying women are often put on these pedestals where we talk about them in certain ways. We like to criticise, we like to judge, we like to speculate and that then feeds and breeds into the kind of culture we have with the media and the way that people talk about the Hillary Clintons of today, and the Julia Gillards, and the sort of celebrity culture that is so rife now. She really was a very early celebrity”.
Rodway says LadyCake, like their previous work, will be quite self aware. “We like to write work that is quite comical, that has macabre undertones,” she says. The show will also be visually striking, referencing the colour and luxury of royal life in the 1700s, but also subverting that, given at the time “There's a very bloody backdrop going on outside in the streets.” And will there be cake? “It will definitely appear in some form,” Rodway says.
By Joanne Brookfield
Three Birds Theatre's LadyCake is part of Poppy Seed Festival, performing at Trades Hall until Sunday November 27.