Thursday, June 05, 2014

Intimate Apparel: corsets and other historic constraints

Lynn Nottage was inspired to write Intimate Apparel by uncovering a picture of her great grandmother and that’s where this production at Ustinov Studio begins, with a projected photo of a 'Negro seamstress' dominating the set: the room of a New York seamstress in 1905. Here Esther sews lingerie for rich whites and prostitutes alike and longs for love with quiet desperation. When George, a Panama canal workman, begins to write to her to ease his own loneliness, an inevitable tale unrolls like fabric in Mr Mark’s drapery store...
As well as evoking moving glimpses of a history largely unwritten, from a writerly point of view this play is fascinating: Lynn Nottage blends poetic monologues and political one-liners with narrative dialogue as Esther talks with the key people who define her identity. Woman is the nigger of the world, John Lennon sang, but humanity has devised a cruel perversity of oppressions and no-one in this story is unaffected. George's letters, which are a highlight for the audience as well as Esther, convey his life of labour on the canal with passionate eloquence ~ "this great fissure across the land, chaos a jackhammer away. When the oceans meet, will we coloured men be given glasses to raise?” ~ and even rich white Mrs Van Buren reveals private anguish. Performances are all superb, with Tanya Moodie superlative in the central role. The versatile set and moody sound design are great, especially the silent-movie-style piano accentuating both era and poignant moments of non-communication. Lawrence Boswell's direction is typically attentive to every detail though the reiterative fabric-inspired sensuality doesn't completely work for me, but that's a small point in a stunning production. It's on till 28th June but best get booking: this one is bound to fill the house when the starry reviews all come out. 

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