I keep waiting for the French Revolution to come into fashion. Interest occasionally seems to flicker into being—Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, David Adjmi’s 2012 play of the same name, the National Theatre’s 2010 production of Danton’s Death—but it never breaks into the full-fledged fad I hope it will. The tensions seem so relevant and obvious: an ever-growing wealth gap, crushing poverty in a world with the resources to permit others to have lives of unspeakable luxury and decadence, a chaotic reshuffling of the world order with traditional powers scrambling to find their new places. But it’s what those tensions explode into that makes us so nervous—though I guess by us I should clarify the Anglophone world, which can’t quite make itself comfortable with the concept that sometimes, systemic violence from above will be answered with physical violence from below.
Much like broken windows and riots provide a handy excuse for dismissing the concerns of protesters today, the French Revolution’s swerve into extreme violence has long been cause for assuming that there was no possible logic or justification to what the revolutionaries did. Yes of course the monarchy and aristocracy were wasteful and oppressive and corrupt, but then all those poor people died for it? And was it really their fault?
The poster child for this insistence on innocence is, as the list above suggests, Queen Marie Antoinette—and that is who, at first glance, it seems like The Knitting Pattern, Deborah Nash’s new play at Theatre503, is going to centre on. That quavering falsetto, those panniers, that giant pink hair—who else could it be? But this play is not so realistic.
The woman in the pink wig is Purl (Julia Tarnoky), and she has wandered into the hilltop lair of three fate-like figures (in fact identified by the names of the Fates in the program, though these names are never said in the play) played with appropriate spookiness by Candice Price (the nice one, who spins the threads), David Flanagan (the uptight one, who measures the threads), and Elliot Keefe (the chaotic one, who cuts them). Purl wants her life unwound, or maybe remade, or maybe just remembered. Despite repeated choruses of ‘why are you here, my dear?’, we spool back to relive patches of Purl’s life without ever really understanding why, or needing to. Nash’s poetry is so dreamy, and Michael Hunt’s direction so artfully and aggressively divorced from anything like reality, it’s made plain very quickly that mundanities like linearity and motivation are beside the point.
The fantastic set and props are created by students at the Chelsea School of Art, and their precision—the gage numbers on a pair of giant knitting needles, the matching giant thread, a lumpy, tattered tricolour hanging in the corner—complement the precision of the knitting metaphors, the repeated choruses of counting stitches and interludes of instructional voice-over.
I began to think of the play almost like a collection of poetry—or maybe like a pointillist image rendered in knitting. Something that coheres in part into a concrete narrative, but leaves plenty of gaps for one’s own interpretation.
Purl speaks of feeling like she is made of glass, and Tarnoky embodies this with careful, stylized gestures and a high, twittering voice, speaking like she is afraid of shattering crystalline vocal cords. Is Purl pure artlessness, or only art, with nothing at the centre? Can she really be blamed for shielding herself with the privilege she was raised to, for being offered no other options?
One interlude suggests yes: a cameo by the lone historical figure, the Chevalièr(e) d’Eon, the soldier, spy, and diplomat whose gender was a source of scandal and gossip during and after her life. She spent the first part of her life as a man (though evidently sometimes spied as a woman), then insisted that she had in fact been born a woman and asked to be recognized as such. After her death, she was found to have both breasts and testes. Nash’s d’Eon insists on feminine pronouns, and suggests that there is more space to seize control of one’s own destiny than Purl has been trained to recognize. But this flash of challenge vanishes, and Purl slips into a narrative that, were it not for Nash’s language and Tarnoky’s quaveringly strange and beautiful performance, might feel familiar: constrained by her sex and her class, unhappily married, valued only for her womb, while the revolution rumbles in the background.
It seems that the only site of fascination and tragedy we can find in the French Revolution is in its aristocratic women, with those cagey crinolines and tottering hairdos as ready-made metaphors. Sometimes I think that we’ll know the world is really on the brink of changing, the systems really about to collapse, when someone produces a big, bloody French Revolution play that beheads the aristocrats and says they deserve it. The Knitting Pattern is not that play. It is smaller and stranger, more conservative and more outlandish, a weird, winding web.