Joan Greening’s new play “Terror,” which presently inhabits Paradise in the Vault, is all based upon a curious snippet from the journals of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, who was imprisoned by the French Revolution for her monarchist beliefs. Whilst in prison Elliott befriended Madame du Barry, once the official mistress of Louis XV, during the days leading up to this lady’s execution. “…she showed very little courage on the scaffold; yet I believe, had everyone made as much resistance as she did, Robespierre would not have dared to put so many to death, for Madame du Barry’s screams, they told me, frightened and alarmed the mob.”
The authentic aristocrat was supposed to meet the mob with hauteur. There is a delicious implication behind Elliott’s words that if the doomed class had only made more of a fuss, then the terror might have been called off. Madame du Barry was not, and did not see herself as, part of the aristocracy. She had slept her way to the top in the classic style, progressing from tradesmen and shopkeepers to ministers and courtiers, until she finally reached the bed of the king himself. She and Madame Guillotine are the comic and tragic masks of Greening’s play, with both working their way through one man after the next. Greening puts both Elliott and Madame du Barry on stage, with Julia Rufey and Julia Munrow respectively playing them.
The bustle of the Fringe is very distant in the Vault, where a coffee is eighty pence and there are five people in the audience (although given the current prominence of gory news stories about ISIS, beheading is possibly not deemed a very fun topic at the moment). Greening’s play is actually thoroughly researched, but it initially rollicks sloppily about like a farce. Why, for example, are both characters dressed in the outfit of the Princess from Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty? Is this the nearest that the production could get to historical accuracy? Or is there some oppressive symbolism at work, with the dirty old blanket which constantly jumps to and fro between the women now more important than their finery?
Yes, this is always an entertaining play, but it is rather perplexing in the end. The later observation of scenes of “terror,” that period in the Revolution when they were just clearing up all the meat, robs from the earlier, more innocent humour. I was ultimately reminded of the tagline from Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series: “It’s history with the nasty bits left in!” This ghoulish little play would appeal best to schoolchildren who are studying the Revolution and want to snatch a vivid taste of its dregs.