24 July – 11 August
Written by Sasha Wilson, further devised by the company
Cast: Joseph Harrison, David Leopold and Sasha Wilson
Design: David Spence
Lighting Design: Will Alder
Produced by Joseph Cullen, Sarah Divall and Claire Gilbert for Out of the Forest Theatre
Photo Credits: Reg Madison/Liam Bessell
Bury the Hatchet is a re-visiting of the famous Lizzie Borden story, performed in the black-box studio of The Hope Theatre, Islington. Upon entering we find Sasha Wilson, the actor who plays Lizzie and herself as the playwright, kneeling on the floor in a lace black dress (wearing matching Etsy style earrings of Lizzie Borden) at the centre of radiating family portraits splattered with red blood. Sasha copies details from a hefty history tome into a notebook, presumably crafting the play we’re about to see. Above, a lit hatchet dangles from a rigged loop of rope. Stringed instruments – a violin, a banjo, etc. – crowd the back of the stage. A resonant whistle fills the space as Joseph Harrison and David Leopold enter, completing the ensemble cast, and we’re off.
What follows is an investigation of the persevering mystery, nagging happenstance, and odd Victorian social hang-ups that contributed to the peculiar and unresolved case of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of the murder of her father and step-mother by hatchet in 1892. (Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks…etc.)
In the play, Sasha claims that she initially set out to write a historically accurate show. What results is an interesting frisson between Lizzie Borden pop-lore, the dramatisation of primary sources and the beginning of the playwright’s inquiry into both Lizzie’s motivation and her own fascination with the story, set to a gorgeous prairie bluegrass soundtrack.
Sasha’s exploration feels strongest when the playwright reflects on what she finds interesting about the murder and its circumstance – weaving together a possible psychology for Lizzie, before revising her theories with a new set of supporting facts. Her desire to find something else in Lizzie’s motivations, and Lizzie’s relationships with her sister Emma and the family maid Bridget, even if only through supposition, brings new life to the nursery rhyme.
Joseph Harrison and David Leopold had a markedly generous energy and seamlessly led the audience through the thorny mystery, expertly playing a bevvy of supporting characters. The ensemble was silly and charming, the piece defined by a meta-humour that buoyed along the more serious themes, allowing a critique of the original trial, both with facts, fictions and digressions.
The atmosphere was intimate and immersive, aided by a subtle choreographed movement, well-articulated by the actors and magnetic in the space. Within the studio, Will Alder created a moody, oil-painting lighting scape, with wisps of more electric horror, highlighting the ensemble’s striking arrangements (both musical/physical) beneath the ever-hanging hatchet.
The style sang best when it positioned its author as architect of the inquiry. Sasha Wilson is particularly compelling when she filters Lizzie through the lens of her own experience, reflecting on the awakening Lizzie might have felt after her first European tour, or interrogating her own relationship with death. While the details of the crime are teasingly interesting, the question of what is true remains locked in time and I found the pursuit of what might be understood, or re-interpreted from the vantage of now, to be far more engaging.
Overall, the piece was rich and evocative, expertly conjuring the feeling of vaudevillian horror as well as identifying something at the heart of our ongoing fascination with “guilty” true crime celebrities and Lizzie’s relatable, out of time refusal to have less.