Samuel Pepys’ diary is a prime source to understanding life in the 17th Century. Big Dance Theatre's 17c scratches below the surface to discuss the treatment of women throughout history. Tom Ward reviews:

At first glance, a play about Samuel Pepys might appear boring and  antiquated. The woes of a white, upper class businessman from the 17th Century have all the earmarks of bearing no relevance to a modern audience. But this is where New York City based company Big Dance Theatre shows its mastery of storytelling.

Through the lense of Pepys’ diary, Artistic Director Annie-B Parson uses spoken word, modern dance and meta-theatrics to express the erasure of women’s narratives. Using Pepys as a framework, 17c highlights man’s historical desire to document our own lives, and our subsequently abusive treatment of women throughout history.

What Big Dance Theatre has done perfectly is to not take itself too seriously. One of the show’s opening moments requires the audience shout out local slang terms for ‘penis’ (followed by some very enthusiastic participants). And this is a smart decision, as 17c can easily be dragged down by its heavy source material.

The level of entertaining, comical self awareness gives the production pace, allowing the audience to engage with the themes on an organic level. These are presented periodically like chapters in a book, under such great titles as ‘We are dancing about our pain’ – a nod to 17c’s self awareness about the perceived pomposity of modern dance. Such playfulness is offset by tender moments that dramatically shift the production’s focus from tongue-in-cheek fun to intense sections of social commentary. A comedic YouTube skit suddenly transforms into a display of sexual harassment in the workplace through physical gesture. Such a clash of styles, from clowning to stark naturalism, balances the production perfectly.

17c Old Vic

In addition to this deftly handled balancing act, 17c is able to make a number of intelligent connections between modern life and Pepys’ diary. Mashing together diary entries and relevant YouTube extracts enables the audience to connect with the source material on a personal level. It is painfully obvious that the erasure of women’s narratives has been present throughout history when 17c plays a section of Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, interspersed with descriptions of the production from Pepys’ point of view. Cavendish’s writing is before her time, full of groundbreaking insights about gender, sexuality, and women’s place within society, but is dismissed by Pepys (and implicitly society as a whole) because of her gender.

And this gets to the heart of Big Dance Theatre’s production. It is the removal of women’s voices that has caused them to be largely forgotten about in history, especially when placed next to the brash tones of their male counterparts.

17c Old Vic

17c is a must see – a fantastically entertaining, intelligent piece of theatre, layering insightful meaning underneath the colourful, vibrant exterior Oana Botez‘s costume design. With an excellent cast (Paul Lazar’s monologue is a highlight), each of whom expertly navigate their way across Samuel Pepys’ diary and beyond, it is very hard to find a fault. So why look for one?

★★★★★

17c ran at The Old Vic until 29 September 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website here.