Skin Deep - theatre review, Reading Fringe Festival

An eleven year old Hungarian girl wants to fight the Turks with her older brothers, but she can’t even kill a caught rabbit. How does this girl grow up to become the most infamous female serial killer in history – Erzsebet Bathory better known as the ‘Blood Countess’ who allegedly slaughtered 600 young women.

‘Skin Deep’ combines historic legend and dramatic fiction to portray Erzsebet’s early years – a child bride to Ferenc Nadasdy she is left in her new home Csejte Castle while he goes to fight against the Ottomans.

Erzsebet is of higher social standing than Ferenc and retains her Bathory surname upon marriage but despite her aristocratic privilege we see that it is a rare occurrence for her to have the upper hand. Erzsebet is laughed at by her brothers when she wants to fight the Turks. She is unable to prevent her brothers from assaulting the household servants including her personal maid Lucie. She is mocked by Ferenc when she wants to join him in battle with her own troops. She asks for a captured Turk as a wedding gift but does not receive it. The hope of some kind of Game of Thrones female empowerment will never happen for Erzsebet. Her function is to marry and produce a male heir.

The maids at castle Csejte talk about how their mistress Ursula (Erzsebet’s mother-in-law) has prevented any funny business between them and the stable hand by cutting out his tongue. When Erzsebet attempts to punish Ursula’s maid Zsofi for hurting her, Ursula puts her in check by punishing Lucie.

It’s a battle that Erzsebet will never win. Will wedding guest Darvulia a brothel keeper from Austria hold the key to female autonomy?

‘Skin Deep’ is a quality production from Attila Theatre with an excellent script by playwright Lee Anderson. The action is interspersed with unspoken scenes of disturbing music foreshadowing Erzsebet’s cruelty (and possible epilepsy) with servants strangling themselves.

With themes of gender inequality, foreign wars and control, ‘Skin Deep’ is a very relevant contemporary play. So many notable women are missing or underrepresented in our history books and Bathory’s crimes are not only controversial and exaggerated (she was said to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her youthful looks) they are highly contested.

Is it the case presented in ‘Skin Deep’ that if Erzsebet can’t fight or hurt men then she’ll exercise power over creatures with less freedom than her – other women (peasants). Probable, but murdering 600 of them?

Or is it more likely that Countess Bathory (newly widowed and extremely wealthy) was framed by Palatine Gyorgy Thurzo, as she had become too powerful and independent. That the hundreds of ‘witnesses’ to crimes had been manipulated by the Lutheran church to repeat the same stories?

Attila Theatre’s ensemble are consistent high quality actors with a majority female led cast. I would have liked to have seen Ursula (Erzebet’s mother-in-law) played by an age appropriate, older female actor. We know there are fewer parts for older female actors.

What is fact and what is fake news? See ‘Skin Deep’ and decide for yourself.

(c) Wendy Thomson 2017

Skin Deep by Attila Theatre
Pentahotel Reading, Saturday 22nd July 5.30pm
Reading Fringe Festival
Skin Deep can be seen at Camden Fringe Festival 31st July – 6th Aug

Zsofi - Lilian Tsang
Darvulia - Hanna Rohtla
Lucie - Clementine Mills
Kata - Natalie Pailing
Ferenc - Oscar Scott-White
Stefan - Mike Archer
Erzsebet - Ashley Winter
Ursula- Rachel August
Gyorgy - Matthew Wellard
Mara - Katie Turner
Gabi - Philippa James


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