Ground-breaking writer Katherine Mansfield is at the heart of musical Two Tigers which English Cabaret produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer in the centenary year of her death. Whilst re-imagining her show, writer Sue Casson has been exploring new facts about her life that have emerged 'a lifetime on' from its' first production (for the centenary of her birth) in a series of Mansfield Musings, and making fresh discoveries about where the spotlight falls.
Now the Edinburgh Fringe production of her re-imagined Two Tigers is over, writer Sue Casson reflects on the performances.
If expressing exactly what you think and feel on paper is difficult when there is only one of you, how much more complex is sharing those words with a team to put them on stage and present them to an audience? This shared experience is the lifeblood of theatre, but between the idea and the reality, the size of the stage and the budget, there is potential for the shadow to fall. Or in the best case, for necessity to become the mother of invention, adding insights that you may not have envisaged on the page. This was the case for English Cabaret in Edinburgh this year. Director Tom Blackmore and I knew certain practical constraints would contain our imaginative vision. Fringe is not the place for lavish sets as time to set and clear is so restricted, but presenting a piece in the raw puts the focus firmly on the script and score.
The Time Conundrum
Our allocated time slot was shorter than the original show by an hour, and we were committed to keeping as many of the songs which were its strength as possible, so narrative clarity from the scenes was a priority. Tom had the neat idea of building on the Mansfield Musings I have been writing to explore different aspects of Katherine's life to form a framework. Podcaster Avril Gilchrist (based on a tutor of mine at college) was conceived to act as the audience guide to what they were seeing – a shortcut to avoid unnecessary confusion.
As a performer I was well placed to take this role, and I felt the responsibility of acting as a bridge between the script and the stage. In a very personal way, I was sharing my passion for Mansfield and inviting the audience to join me. I wanted them to feel with me the imaginative power of the printed words in her books, piled beside Avril, to literally see how they could draw the ghosts of Katherine, Murry and Ida out of the walls of the hotel in Bandol where the musical is set. During the show this shared location blurred time as music from a hidden pianist united their early 20th century world with mine, and ultimately the audience, so we time travelled together.
Bringing the characters to life
I wrote Two Tigers when I was 27, and a significant part of my re-imagining has been the changing perspective my own experience has brought to my interpretation of KM’s life and writing. Seeing her played at Edinburgh this year by my daughter Lily who is now 27, recreating scenes from her life with natural youthful vigour, at just the age Katherine was at the time the musical is set - 1918 - drove home to me, 27 no longer, just how short her life was cut, what a challenge invalidity brought to all aspects of her life, and despite all of that, what she managed by sheer force of indomitable character, to achieve.
The Murry we chose to cast opposite her, also visibly offered a different perspective on the dynamic of their relationship. His extreme youth when he first encountered Katherine is often lost in the story of what happened after. Lucas McQueen, the second-year student from Napier University was only a year younger than JMM when he first met Katherine, then 24. The exaggerated stage difference in age, with Lily 3 years older than that, made clear his boyish bravado alongside a more circumspect, experienced KM who had lived through solo migration from the other side of the world, a pregnancy out of wedlock that ended in miscarriage, and a hasty short-lived marriage. The contrast between a student starting out in life with the incident crammed into her youthful years was stark.
A Musical Romance...
Two Tigers is driven by the youthful romance I saw between them fired by their shared literary understanding and ambition. This to me seemed enviable, and the right stuff for musical treatment. In re-imagining the show I didn't want to lose its essential charm. Subtly moving the spotlight from Katherine’s inevitable death to her considerable life force before it dissipated into ill health enabled the power of the attraction to take centre stage. Murry's intellect was prodigious, earning him a First in Greats at Oxford even as he founded a notable literary magazine; he was more than a match for the extraordinary Mansfield, already a published author when they met, and the bond between them, through good times and bad, formed a very special basis on which they built their lives.
I never set out to be controversial, but this focus on the magic of their association, personal and professional, rather than the sense that Murry somehow fell short and wasn’t good enough, which is often a feature of dramas of their shared lives, won over audiences, and surprised and cheered Middleton Murry’s granddaughter who came to one of our performances.
...And a New Perspective
The constraints of mounting a fringe show meant each actor in the cast of four had to pull their weight. One of our bravest decisions was to elide the role of KM’s brother Chummie who appears early in the piece, with that of her lifelong friend Ida Baker, who arrives towards the end, when KM needs care. Katherine herself drew a line between them when she chose her brother’s name – Leslie – for her friend, and the versatility of actor Emily Mahi'ai brought a poignancy to both these people who cared for her so deeply.
Leslie/Chummie was her closest family ally, who in Two Tigers remains close to her even in death, whilst Ida/Lesley unswervingly cared for her with familial dedication throughout her illness. Another name KM used for Leslie/Chummie was Bogey – and seeing KM use this nickname for Jack on stage reinforces the link that binds them all.
This love that surrounds Katherine is inextricably bound with her successful drive to create in the closing years of her life, and to reflect this idea, at Tom's suggestion, I rewrote some of the lyrics of Trio, originally sung by LM, KM and George Bowden, Katherine’s brief husband, to form the Finale of the show.
Two Tigers is an uncynical celebration of the power of love and creativity to transcend time. Onstage in Edinburgh this year we learned that it was possible to make this a shared timeless memory. Now we have seen how well this works in practice, we can't wait for a fully designed Riviera set to take the show to the next stage.
This blog was first published in a series of Mansfield Musings on www.SueCasson.co.uk
Two Tigers played each day at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's C aquila from 2nd - 27th August (Not 14) 2023