D’Eon by Renny Krupinski
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester [14.02.18]
A chaise longue beneath which lie endless crumpled bits of paper. A table with yet more crumpled paper, an open bottle of wine and a cork screw. A woman frantically attempting to write but never quite being successful. D’Eon.
Renny Krupinski’s delicately crafted and poignant new play, D’Eon transports us back to the 1700’s to explore the life of Chevaliere D’Eon de Beaumont: a French diplomat, soldier and spy who infiltrated the Court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. These were among her many astounding achievements and reason why she is of such huge importance to European history. D’Eon was the first openly documented transgender person in European history. Living in a time when any identity beyond the gender binary of male and female was not readily talked about and acknowledged, D’Eon’s decision to leave France with her birth assigned gender of male and return as the woman she had always been was nothing short of a slap in the face to democracy and an honest decision to live her own truth as herself.
Brought into a world that flits between England, France and Russia and a sea of good wine from D’Eon’s cellar, we are delivered a fruitful and action packed tale of disguise, glory, identity erasure and dishonour. D’Eon’s telling of her life story to the young Thomas Plummer is witty and charismatic. More than seventy years worth of memories are told and recreated, as the two linguistically joust over many a game of fencing. Kaitlin Howard’s performance as D’Eon is captivating, we are left hanging on her every word as she remarks on everything from her father bringing her up as a boy despite her being a girl (she later expresses that this is ‘a lie’ though that highly depends on semantics) to Morande and Beaumarchais’ manipulation and mistreatment of her, in the aim of profit over her basic right to be acknowledged as a woman. The chemistry between Howard and William Holstead (who plays Thomas Plummer) is nothing short of electric. Her strength and charisma played against his fear, awkwardness and warmth, whilst delivering a lyrical and straight-talking script keeps this story moving purposefully through what could easily have been a stodgy piece of history.
D’Eon is certainly not short of humour nor sex. Marc Geoffrey’s performance as a lustful and sexually-hyped Louis XV alongside both of his mistresses, dominatrix Madame Pompadour (Rachael Gill-Davis) and tease Madame du Barry (Evelyn Roberts) creates for a heap of sexual acts (and an animal sex party that is likely only one of many) that put the gags in Carry on Emmanuelle to shame. Gill-Davis and Roberts sizzle in their charm of the king and certainly raise our temperatures each time they almost break into the aristocratic equivalent of a Slaters sisters’ fight of Eastenders. Geoffrey and Gill-Davis keep us in stitches in their demonstration of a portion of the karma sutra – where lying back and thinking of England is the worst thing you could do. Louis however meets a sticky end, dying whilst eating out Madame du Barry is certainly a way to go!
All jokes aside, the final moments of Krupinski’s play are something that you won’t easily forget. Despite D’Eon welcoming death with open arms and planning on writing a strongly worded letter when she reaches hell, her final breaths are to tell Thomas that she has told him many lies. She tells him that her story contains falsities: she was not assigned female at birth but coerced by her father into being a male (and then coerced by de Guerchy into being a woman) in the name of France. D’Eon was assigned male at birth but has always been a woman, it was only in her later life that she was able to be that woman freely. On her passing, her house maid Mrs Cole (played by Louise McNulty) shoos the ghosts that she cannot see away and proclaims D’Eon as her friend. But, it is when she sits to wash D’Eon and on lifting her garments up unveils D’Eon’s penis to the audience. The audible gasp of the room quickly quietened as D’Eon stood up, took a fencing sword and declared “Right, which one of you bastards is first?!”
The sheer strength of character of D’Eon is not just something that needs to be remembered but talked about. She was a woman of immense intelligence, talent and wit who had to fight for and be treated abhorrently for her right to live her life as the woman she was born. This incredible story is beautifully told by The Straight Acting Theatre Company. And I am left feeling that if there’s one thing we can do in life it is truly embrace the person that we are… be more like D’Eon.
Verdict: This telling of D’Eon is witty, passionate and empowering – a window into the life of an incredible and underrated woman.