BATS Theatre
January 10-17 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

Becoming the Courtesan is a feisty piece from drama school duo Jamie Burgess and Karen Anslow. The singing pair have poured immense amounts of time and effort into this comedic tragedy, which began as a NASDA (Christchurch’s National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Arts) music assignment ten years ago. Anslow’s self-constructed role is daring, Burgess’ convincingly maudlin, and the play is held together with a good dose of wit as well as some gorgeous singing and all round talent.

When Lorenzo (Jamie Burgess) opens centre stage adorned with gothic dress and cape, visually I am reminded of a scene from the Phantom of the Opera – though Burgess’ initial singing voice may lack the requisite punch. Then enters Anslow, and the gilded frame she peers through begins an ongoing theme of renaissance-style decadence and seduction. If there were any doubt among viewers, even after the title, as Madame Cochineal Anslow makes her position immediately clear: a woman “as well kept as she is” is a valuable find.

As it turns out, this well-kept woman is what Lorenzo is really here for; yet she, with her wit and strength, must in turn prevent him from dominating. As Lorenzo reveals his ‘real,’ dark self La Cochineal’s two sides are likewise slowly exposed; though in too explicit a manner near the end to really let us draw our own conclusions. The irreverent Courtesan’s ambition looks set to become her downfall as the final scene of the play escalates into Grecian melodrama. Though fitting with the historical genre the play seems intent on capturing, the overzealous moves of the two actors at the play’s end detract from any subtlety or nuance that would have perhaps left viewers with a more lasting impression. Similarly there were occasional gaps of reason in the plot, for example with regard to Lorenzo’s motives for the final deed of vengeance against his father.

However both actors appear to have carved out in this work the room to express themselves as freely as they wish. A sense of the actors’ own personalities comes across more than once, in for example the chicanery of “The Thief of Love,” or the almost private series of kitchen jokes alluding to sex.

Stage manager Corinne Simpson and visual effects guru Ian Harman manage some beautiful visual play, building on the themes of magic and trickery that characterise La Cochineal’s den. The effect is particularly striking when (who I assume to be) Harman emerges from beneath Lorenzo’s cape during the retelling of a moment of great lust. The naked actor whispers into the nobleman’s ear and then slinks away, and the audience is hushed by the beauty and simplicity of the moment.

All in all BATS Theatre’s opening work for 2009 is a well honed and well crafted piece that is a pleasure to watch. Although this reviewer found it had too much of a tendency toward melodrama, the creators’ genuine passion for their work was rich and rewarding.