Six Serpents and a Tarantula – Hen and Chickens, London

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer and Director: Maryanna Clarke

Ladies, lace, guns and gilt. Creatures that are symbols of temptation, deceit and danger. Six Serpents and a Tarantula promises a glimpse into a ‘true story’ of the Wild West, while challenging the ‘frankly untrue stereotypes’ perpetuated by male directors of westerns.

It’s not obvious how much these stereotypes are challenged here. Apart from a slight subplot about abortion, there are all the usual ingredient: horses, saloons and men with guns. Maryanna Clarke knows the terrain, having discovered the story while working on a ranch in Wyoming. It’s an interesting idea to try to tell the story through the town prostitutes, although this may not be the most effective way.

The play opens with the five women ready for work in Victorian underwear and make-up which gives them what one character (probably anachronistically) calls ‘racoon eyes’. Each night a gun-spinning game determines who plays which role. This is not a new idea, although usually it’s just the two main actors who switch roles, as in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein. Here it acknowledges (fairly) that all the actors are equally talented, and demonstrates that this is a company who work exceptionally well together. The drawback is that, in a piece that aims to give voices to real but little-known people, no one really owns a character, and it becomes more of an acting exercise than a story. A curious directorial decision is that the three women who play the men sling on jackets but let their lace and satin bodices show, so we never forget who they really are. That may be the intention, but it gets in the way of an already muddled plot.

It doesn’t help that –  historical fact – all the men are called William, and so is the brothel-owner Rose (Williams). The story begins with Blind Bill urgently penning what he correctly expects to be his last letter home. This letter really exists. It results from the affair of all those Williams and Belle Drewery, ‘the Lady in Blue’. Then Belle appears and talks to a horse, before befriending its current owner – William Gallagher, horse-thief.  A red bandanna gets passed around. ‘There’s late and there’s late’ Belle says to brothel-keeper Rose, apparently telling her off – although in fact she’s providing a remedy for a ‘temporary feminine indisposition.’  Most confusingly, a noose drops down towards the end. It’s known that guns or jail have seen off everyone else. Is the play suggesting Rose took her own life? There doesn’t seem to be any historical evidence. Some lines simply don’t ring true. It’s unlikely that any woman in 1894 ever said, ‘You’re just upset ‘cause it’s a woman using her body in a way you’ve got no control over’.

Singing plays an important and effective role. Powerful voices belt out traditional songs of love and death, establishing an atmosphere of inevitable tragedy. This is a story that lends itself better to ballad form, perhaps, than to the stage. It takes place in a primitive shanty town. The title is a corruption of a Latin tag all too familiar to educated Americans at the time, but not to the hardscrabble inhabitants of Arland, Wyoming.

What interests Clarke is the impact of western life on women. Although the play does make it clear that Belle suffers hideous abuse at the hands of Gallagher, and equally clear that he is a seriously damaged character, it does not really lay bare the despair and lack of self-esteem experienced by victims of domestic violence.

What would be interesting would be for Maryanna Clarke and Old School Players to explore the lives of the women themselves –  who they really were when the guns were off the table.

Runs until 13 November 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Content warning: triggers

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