Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World (Greater Manchester Fringe)

Sunday 9 July 2017
Hope Mill Theatre, Pollard Street

On Sunday, I was at a performance of the verbosely titled The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, one of the shows being staged this year for the Greater Manchester Fringe. If that grand title itself doesn’t intrigue you, then I should tell you that this is a theatre production that is performed in complete darkness.


I must admit, I was rather excited when I saw this show was being staged at the Fringe. Forgive the self-promotion, but you may have seen that my edited collection She-Wolf has just come out in paperback from Manchester University Press. In the book, there’s a chapter by Australian artist and writer Jazmina Cininas entitled ‘Fur Girls and Wolf Women: Fur, Hair and Subversive Female Lycanthropy’, which discusses the cultural history of hairy women. Julia Pastrana is one of the historical women Cininas writes about, along with the sixteenth-century Gonsalus sisters and nineteenth-century Krao Farini. Having edited Cininas’s work, I’ve become familiar with Julia Pastrana’s story from an academic perspective – so the fact that the play was being performed at the same time as She-Wolf’s paperback was being launched was a wonderful twist of fate.

By way of background, Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican woman, born with hypertrichosis terminalis (abnormal hair growth) and other genetic conditions. Her nose, lips and gums were unusually large and thick, and her face and body were covered in hair. At some point in her early life, Pastrana was sold and taken to the United States to perform in a travelling show. She was billed as a ‘Bear Woman’ and ‘The Ugliest Woman on Earth’, and she was toured around North America. There she met Theodore Lent, who took over her management and exhibited her around Europe and America. In 1854, Lent and Pastrana married. Her fame began to increase, and she was the subject of scientific studies as well as freakshow entertainment. One nineteenth-century commentator, George O’Dell, concluded that Pastrana was ‘semi-human’, a cross between a woman and an orangutan.

In 1860, Pastrana gave birth to a son, who inherited some of her genetic conditions. The child died within three days, and Pastrana herself died shortly afterwards from post-partum complications. Lent had the bodies of his wife and child embalmed, and continued to exhibit them until his own death in 1884. He also remarried, wedding a hirsute German woman who was exhibited under the name Zenora Pastrana (and who, he falsely claimed, was Julia’s sister).


The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana was written by Shaun Prendergast, and was first performed in 1998. It’s an hour-long one-act play performed in complete darkness by a cast of five or six. It’s an unusual and immersive experience, with Pastrana’s story unfolding through short vignettes (it’s hard to call them ‘scenes’, given the way the play is staged) that chart her sale, performances, marriage, childbirth, death and post-mortem ‘career’. We begin with carnival grinders announcing their attractions: ‘limbless wonder’, ‘fish boy’, etc. Despite the small cast, the hustle and bustle surrounds the audience, with voices seeming to come from all sides.

With words based on historical descriptions of her act, Julia Pastrana cuts through the noise to introduce herself. In a sweet and lyrical voice, she describes the deformity of her facial features, before explaining that, despite this, her figure is ‘neat’ and her mind sharp. And then, at the instigation of a baying audience, she begins to sing – and at that moment it becomes impossible to imagine her as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’.

And that’s part of the reason for the show’s ‘gimmick’. The True History is a play that must be performed in complete darkness. The lack of a visual experience is not simply a trick or an experiment (and it’s not just that reconstructing Pastrana’s features would be too complicated): it’s vital to our understanding of the characters that we don't descend into gawping at ‘ugliness’. This is the story of a woman who lived her life as an exhibit – her whole career revolved around her being a spectacle, a thing to be looked at. By the time we reach the end of the story, the darkness takes on a further layer of heart-breaking significance (but you’ll need to see the show to fully understand that aspect).

The story that unfolds is cruel in places, unsettling in others, and yet imbued with a sweetness and sympathy (for Pastrana but also, in places, for Lent). It pulls no punches, and there were some moments when I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and ironically voyeuristic. This is not a story with a happy ending, and at the show’s powerful climax I was very pleased that it was performed in darkness, as that meant no one could see me crying.

Prendergast’s writing is excellent here. Although the play does deviate a little from the ‘true history’ – it is Lent who purchases Pastrana in Mexico, there’s no mention of any previous ‘owner’, and reference to Lent’s later marriage is omitted – this makes sense in terms of the limitations of a one-act play. The interactions between Lent and Pastrana beautifully capture the complex nature of their relationship, with Lent moving between money-hungry showman and loving husband, sometimes within the space of a few sentences. And Pastrana is sweetly naïve, beautifully melancholy, and knowingly complicit by turns.

Oddly, this performance didn’t have a programme or cast list available. I presume that, in the spirit of Theodore Lent, Watershed Productions didn’t want to run the risk of anyone spotting their ‘star turns’ out in the real world and ruining the illusion. But as the performances were so impressive, I took the liberty of checking out the show’s Twitter account to find out whose voices I’d been hearing.

Julia Pastrana was played wonderfully by Karina Jones, who captured the prettiness and fragility of ‘the ugliest woman in the world’ in both speech and song. Lent’s brash showmanship was brought to life by Matt Concannon – who did a great job of delivering Lent’s more unsettling (downright disturbing, by the end) lines in a way that made it just about possible to pity him. The rest of the cast – Ruby Ablett, Richard Innocent, Jonathan Blaydon and Colleen Prendergast (who also directed) – took the other roles, filling the auditorium with characters, crowds and sound effects (and… did I imagine it?... smells?) to the extent that it was easy to forget their small number. Although health and safety requirements meant that we had the mechanisms of performance revealed to us before the show started, having voices suddenly ringing out from all sides was still a surprise.

As well as the cast list, there was something else missing from this performance. The play was performed as written in 1998, and so Pastrana’s story ended – so painfully – at the point it had reached that year. But there is a postscript (easily found on Wikipedia, but I don’t want to spoil the play’s ending here), which wasn’t mentioned at any point during the performance. I don’t think this is a criticism, though, as inserting the final ‘ending’ of the story may well have weakened the punch of the climax. Pastrana’s story is one of cruelty and exploitation, and an attempt to tack on a redeeming feature (albeit one based in fact) would have detracted from this.

The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World is a fantastic piece of theatre. Stunning, disturbing and moving – I think it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

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