Set in London in 1888, Yours Truly is one take on the mystery that was Jack the Ripper. It is a darkly psychological and cinematic play that will leave you feeling violated, alone and frightened (in a good way – this is what the play is trying to achieve). Yours Truly tells the story through concentrating on the life of Walter Sickert (James Ashcroft), an artist whose speciality is painting the nude prostitutes of Whitechapel. Through him the audience is introduced to the other characters, most notably the infamous harlot Mary Jane Kelly (Holly Shanahan) and Eddie (Robert Tripe).
The mood and atmosphere that Yours Truly creates is intense. It is opened with slides (Sickert’s paintings, police photos of the real killings and Masonic imagery) projected onto one of the many movable curtains that frames the set, booming dark Victorian sounds and Sickert’s opening monologue, the audience is purposefully provided with too much information at once – this mimics the rest of the performance where the audiences is provided either with a disturbing amount of information, or so little that it drives us crazy. The soundscape is brutal. From effects, to music, to blood curdling screams, every sound that comes from Yours Truly (aside from dialogue) is unbearably loud. Sound designer Steven Gallagher has obviously had fun implementing the principles of ‘theatre as cruelty’.
The set, lighting and costumes are equally dynamic. Martyn Roberts has created a believable Victorian setting that the characters inhabit. He uses only a small number of largeish props (a desk, a bed and a lecturn) to create his world. His lighting is masterful and rather minimalist. He lights the set without any fancy lighting devices other than occasional use of a lone candle to create an eerie atmosphere. This is complemented by fitting period costumes by Zoë Fox, each one different so as to match the personality and status of each character perfectly. And by God are they sexy.
Ashcroft is highly convincing in his role as Sickert, especially in his role as mentor and confidant of Eddie. Throughout the play his character endeavours to prevent the series of events that lead up to these killings from happening without any avail. At each step he is ignored, or his plans to help go awry making him just as guilty, both in his eyes and in the eyes of the audience, as any of the other characters, seen or unseen.
Shanahan too puts on an admirable performance. Her character is, for want of a better cliché, a rough diamond, and she captures this perfectly. Her character is wonderfully clever and is at once graceful, gentle and almost motherly, and the rough, tough, foul mouthed whore that is her defence mechanism. With many different and contradictory facets, her performance has a coarse but beautiful elegance. Despite this, it is her lack of airs and graces and knowledge of how the upper classes work that leads to her (and the other prostitutes she implicates) downfall.
Tripe plays Eddie, who we later find out is Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence (and second in line to the crown). He hides his status from all but Sickert, especially from his commoner lover and then wife Annie (Serena Cotton). The motives behind this are never quite clear in, however it is obvious that it is part of his attempt to hide his relationship from ‘Grandmother’, the then monarch Queen Victoria, who would completely disapprove of him taking up with a commoner. Tripe conveys the privileged nature of Eddie’s upbringing perfectly, especially through his naivety and selfishness. He fails to understand Sickert’s warnings that his actions have consequences and continually thinks only of himself, leaving a wake of mess for others to clean up.
Cotton is well suited to the role of Eddie’s wife and lover and the play’s main victim. She is a sweet and lovely character, if a little dumb (surely she would have know something was up). She comes into her own after her operation and is able to taunt the audience to generate maximum emotional investment.
The final character is Harvey, another prostitute and companion to Mary. Played by Erina Daniels, she is the dark side of Mary’s life. Their lesbian relationship is hinted at beautifully (as is most of the sex in the play) and it is obvious that she would do anything to protect Mary. She is proud, coarse and down to earth, and from is the only character that escapes form being implicated. As a result the audience has a degree of empathy for her that is not shared by the other characters.
Yours Truly plays on the historical aspects of the Jack the Ripper killings, using names, times and dates and also evidential items such as the red handkerchief Kelly is seen wearing in her first scene (that’s all she’s wearing by the way). It does however depart from historical fact in several important areas but, alas, I am unable to reveal these without giving away the ending. Much is made of Dr. Gull’s link to the royal household and to masonry, with his fanatical devotion to both of these and his anti-semitic and misogynistic views his motive for the killings. It is significant that while Gull, in his madness, is directly responsible for the killings, every other character either through their actions, inaction or misreading of the situation are also to blame for the Ripper killings.
Yours Truly is a powerful and unique play. However it is not for the faint hearted – we left Bats and felt anxious and disturbed for days.