The dynamic Attila Theatre Company presented their latest show Skin Deep, written by Lee Anderson and powerfully directed by Ailin Conant and Christopher Montague, at the Penta Hotel in Reading this July as part of the exciting Reading Fringe Festival.
Erzsébet Báthory was one of the most powerful and controversial women in sixteenth century Europe. She was born into privileged and wealthy royalty, married to a distinguished war-hero and became a sadistic serial killer of nearly 600 young women. Skin Deep is a fascinating study of Báthory’s relationships and her struggles with the societal confines of her existence. It explores the eternal themes of sexuality and power and tries to understand what made her a heartless killer.
The play opens to sinister and atmospheric sound (by Ross Kernahan) on a minimalist and eerily lit set. It launches into the opening sword skirmish between her brothers, Istvan and Gabor (vigorously played by Mike Archer and Matthew Wellard) whilst Erzsébet (poignantly yet powerfully played by Ashley Winter) watches, wistfully; she longs to emulate them and break away from societal and gender restraints. They taunt her…
We sense her nascent sadism as she relates the gory murder of a Turk to her trusted servant Lucie (sympathetically portrayed by Clementine Mills). She asks ironically “do you think it’s funny to kill?” Her other domestic entourage, symbolic virgins in white, gigglingly insinuate themselves into the audience, writhing menacingly as they badmouth men, pigs! Throughout the play they mirror the violent deaths that will follow with their demented and sinister choreography and suggestively crunch apples.
She meets her husband-to-be Ferenc (the heroic yet emotionally fragile Oscar Scott-White) and tells him she longs to join the front line and kill Turks… and chillingly demands that he brings her one as a wedding present. She is then symbolically restrained into a tight blood-red corset by her mocking girl servants and harangued by her domineering mother-in-law Ursula (played by the strongly charismatic Rachel August) and reminded of her conjugal duties and the necessity of producing an heir.
There is further raucous commentary by the servants and ominous reference to the “temper on her”. Ursula carouses with her glamorous wedding guest, Darvulia (a splendidly vampish performance by Hanna Rohtla) and mercilessly berates her son, the “Black Knight”.
The inebriated and stumbling groom encounters his bride and relates a bloody and horrifying rape scene. Erzsébet shows an alarming moment of sexual frisson.
More drunken debauchery follows as Erzsébet has ‘fun’ with the serving girls, lacing one of them painfully into a corset and beating Lucy, whilst the servants dance eerily round her. We see her descend into that darkest of places. Her final evil grimace is imprinted on my mind… are serial killers born or made?
This was a compelling and thought-provoking performance by a stellar cast.