Cover Her Face is an adaptation of John Webster’s play about a cross-class love affair, sibling rivalry and bloody revenge.
It has been transposed to queer 50s London by directors Daniel Fulvio and Martin Moriarty. The intended effect is, I suppose, to heighten the transgressive feel: post-war welfare state Britain as the site of an attempt to redefine class barriers, existing on the cusp of a so-called sexual revolution but still in the dark ages of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and before the Sexual Offences Act.
There’s the potential here for rejuvenating a sense of the prohibitive and the illicit in Webster’s play. Certainly there are efforts to achieve this, with plenty of shouting and strangling juxtaposed against scenes that prominently feature snogging and spanking. And yet this production lacks a genuine transgressive impulse: efforts to shock seem coarse, cheap and uninvolved, whilst the portrayals of corruption and cultural conservatism are limp and unprovocative. All in all, it’s more Benny Hill than Jean Genet, which in itself would be fine, except that this undermines the intention to ask bold questions about gender, sexuality and repression in twentieth century British culture and society.
The quality of the production does not make up for its directionless feel. In line with the staid convention of a million and one student productions, the staging concept is to challenge the dogma of end-on by simply positioning different scenes in different parts of the room, apropos of nothing. For the costume and set design – braces and vests are combined, together with an anachronistic chaise longue, to give the vaguest possible sense that we’re in the fifties. And as far as the performances go – lines are garbled, and characters too often clumsy and broad. Finally, there is no interval, which seems inadvisable for a one hour and forty-five minute length show.
Two performances do however make this production worthwhile: Christopher Tester as Bosola and the performance artist La JohnJoseph as the Duchess. Tester makes Bosola feel like a Pinteresque fifties archetype: smart, spiky and unpredictable. La JohnJoseph brings tenderness and even a touch of glamour to the role of the Duchess.