Elisa Armstrong talks forgetting history, humanising women and the dangers of entertainment for the upcoming Marie Antoinette

3 years ago
Til Knowles

Now spanning over 220 years, the morbid fascination with the “It Girl” of Versailles continues as Heartstring Theatre present the Australian premiere of award-winning playwright David Adjmi’s much lauded theatrical sweetmeat, Marie Antoinette. Heartstring Theatre is a Melbourne-based company which endeavours to create dynamic, thought-provoking theatre where at least half of the roles are female. Lead actress and Heartstring Theatre AD Elisa Armstrong took a quick break from rehearsals to chat to Til Knowles about why Marie Anoinette’s story is so enduring and how this play forces audiences to re-examine their assumptions about her.

What makes the story of Marie Antoinette so fascinating, even in 2018?

The idea that history repeats itself – that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it – might sound like a cliche, but it comes from a place of complete truth. We see in Marie’s story (and the character herself) how people who are quick to be built up, are the first to be torn down.

The play deals with democracy and class struggle – how do you see these themes reflecting the state of politics currently? Is this something you actively sought to include in the production?

This play focuses on a time when the monarchy was in power and democracy was an idealised hope. Now that we ostensibly live in a time of democracy, it can be hilarious to see when it was considered a bizarre notion. But do we really live in a democracy? And how close are we to a revolution? Without drawing explicit parallels, the audience should be able to relate the late 1700s to 2018 quite easily.

How do you go about humanising someone who is usually held up as a symbol of upper class vanity and ignorance? Do you think there’s an element of misogyny to the way this teenage girl is portrayed as such?

That Marie was vilified and used a scapegoat, far more so than her husband Louis, is misogyny. It’s easy to humanise someone when attention has been paid to their struggle and circumstance. Unfortunately most people only know “Let them eat cake” and her obsession with clothes.

The play certainly puts her centre stage and allows the audience insight into her daily life, her relationships, and her choices (or lack thereof).

Who (if anyone) in your view is the modern Marie Antoinette equivalent?

There are definite parallels between the treatment of Marie and recent women in politics like Julia Gillard and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the most obvious would be someone like Kim Kardashian. Famous for being famous, and loved and disliked in equal measure. People pay more attention to her than they do to their loved ones.

What helps you get in the headspace of these characters?

We’ve all done our research, it’s been fascinating. But the language of David Adjmi’s play immediately brings you into another character’s world.

He often uses caps, italics, and ellipses to create a distinct rhythm that’s fun and challenging. He goes from colloquial language to poetic in a heartbeat, and it’s beautiful.

Heartstring Theatre aims to create productions and opportunities for women. What do you think the biggest difficultly facing women in theatre is?

Being the centre of stories and not a projection of an androcentric world view. The more stories we have where women are silent wives or annoying girlfriends, the more people think that this is an accurate depiction. There are few female heads of theatre companies and this needs to change.

The press release says ‘Marie Antoinette holds a mirror up to our contemporary society that might just be entertaining itself to death.’ Do you think we are entertaining ourselves to death? Isn’t theatre a form of entertainment?

Theatre is one of the best forms of entertainment, and one of the most collaborative. But the idea is that some entertainment purely distracts rather than encourages the viewer to reflect, and that leads to an endless spiral of mindless consumption. That’s what’s damaging.

Marie Antoinette is known for decadence – how has that influenced your performance? Has it had much impact on the set and costume design?

We’ve shied away from the gaudy, satin costumes that everyone associates with Marie Antoinette. Whilst there are period influences, the mix of past and present reflects the story and its post modern presentation of a character we thought we knew.

What play would you consider the opposite of Marie Antoinette? Why?

Any of the plays like ones I mentioned above, where women are relegated to the sidelines, or only seen through the eyes of men.

What’s the one thing you hope audiences take away from the production? 

That Marie was a real person who was used as a scapegoat for the downfall of the French economy. She was more than a slogan, more than a hairdo.

What’s next on the cards for Heartstring Theatre?

 We have some exciting ideas for our next production, but until the rights are secured, our lips are sealed.


Marie Antoinette is on at 7:30pm at the Northcote Town Hall from 5 – 15 July. Tickets are available from the Heartstring Theatre website

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