Fingersmith breathes subterfuge. Peopled by pickpockets and con artists, its action descends a rabbit hole of nefarious plotting. The central characters are all involved in tricking each other, and although they continually break the fourth wall to address us, we can’t rely on them to speak the truth. They may not even know the truth. We begin to sense that we the audience are the ultimate “pigeons.” The play’s three-act structure is not simply in old-fashioned keeping with the Victorian setting. It is part of the play’s cunning strategy: those interludes sipping coffee in the lobby allow us to recover from the whiplash reveal at lights-down. Then confident that we’ve corrected our sense of dramatic reality, we return like willing victims for another jolt.
stop reading and go see the play.
This is Extreme Theatre, onstage in the Bowmer through July 9. And I cannot honor Alexa Junge’s accomplishment in distilling Fingersmith from Sarah Waters’s gigantic novel or Bill Rauch’s masterful direction without alluding to its full action. So consider this a spoiler alert. If you prefer an unmediated experience of its dynamics, stop reading and go see the play.
Sue Trinder (Sara Bruner), the best lock-picker in the borough of London, reminisces at the top of the play in a key of grounded self-possession. Introducing her childhood, she alludes to her “name in those days” and to certain facts of her biography that she “was told for reasons …[she] could not understand.” We should consider her detached equanimity, underscored by the fact that a young girl enacts the past while the adult Sue stands aside narrating. We should, but we don’t. Instead we’re snagged by the legend of her mother, “wanted by coppers in four divisions,” who was allegedly hanged as a murderess. And we approve of the bond between Sue and her foster mother, Mrs. Sucksby (Kate Mulligan)—a low-life, granted, but a protector with a soft spot for her charge.
Time frames shift in Fingersmith like cups in a shell game, and now we zip forward fifteen years. With a blithe reminder, “Remember, this is all real,” Sue, our trusty commentator, enters her story as an adult. The con artist Richard Rivers (Elijah Alexander) arrives at Sucksby’s with a scam to score thousands of pounds for the three of them, if Sue can perform a key role. Their prey is the upper-class recluse Maud Lilly (Erica Sullivan), who stands to inherit a large fortune after she marries. Rivers plan is to install Sue as Maud’s personal maid, and then woo Maud. After he has wed her, he’ll have her committed to an asylum, a fairly easy gambit in Victorian times.
Sue considers this scheme “a bit shabby,” but Mrs. Sucksby convinces her that as the daughter of a legendary murderess, she owes it to herself to pull it off. Thus the irreverent, irrepressible young woman meets the “girl who never had fun.” Sue takes pity on Maud, captive in her uncle’s dark mansion—she must dose herself with sedative and wear slippers so as not to make noise. She’s fascinated by Maud’s morbid imaginings, and comforts her by sharing her bed. She begins to think of herself and Maud as sisters, copying Maud’s hair-do and replacing her plain garments with an elegant dress from Maud.
As Act One draws to a close, Rivers shows up to consummate the scam—with one alteration. It’s Sue who’s dumped in the asylum in Maud’s place. Screaming her real identity, she is enfolded in that old nightmare conundrum: how to prove you’re sane once the authorities decide you’re not.
Act Two rewinds six months to introduce a different Maud, narrating and enacting a story that further explodes Sue’s. For Maud’s been in on Rivers’s plan all along; for her, it spelled escape from a living death. The endearing neurotic, whose feigned sexual ignorance provoked a stunning initiation scene in Act One, for example, is regularly forced to read pornography aloud to gatherings of her uncle’s male friends. No wonder Maud embraced Sue’s illiteracy as a “fabulous incapacity.” But Sue refuses to cede her role as meta-narrator. As she and Maud fight over control of the story, Rivers sets up Act Three by revealing a larger story, which demotes them both to duped pawns.
The cast of Fingersmith rises gloriously to the challenges posed by these flips in point of view. Bruner’s Sue is perhaps most constant as “the spirited heroine of a sensation play,” the role Maud scorns for herself. Spontaneous, energetic, and triply betrayed, what you see is utterly lovable and pretty much what you get. In contrast, Sullivan’s Maud has an assigned role to perform in Act One, that of a hyper-sheltered hysteric, speaking in staccato sobs. In Act Two, her voice firms and deepens, yet Sullivan subtly conveys the dissociation underneath Maud’s poise, her struggle to deny her erotic attraction to Sue.
Mulligan must recreate Sucksby in each act. In Sue’s eyes, she’s soft-hearted in spite of herself; with Maud, she’s heartless and self-serving, driven by her hunger for social status. Act Three allows her to rise to heroic sacrifice, for a dream if not for her daughters. Meanwhile, base notes gradually usurp the charming bass notes of Alexander’s villain Rivers.
The layers of Fingersmith defy easy mapping. (At one expository point, Maud advises us to “make notes.”) Yet the ending reconciles them all, turning the still relevant ills of Victorian society—the subjugation of women, the pornography industry, the brutal treatment of the insane, economic inequality, and the deep denial of homosexual love— into the backdrop for a tender love story, which advances in spite of brawls and betrayals and distills to a magnificently simple three words: sweeten, push, and begin.