Hinton Magazine Q&A : Lottie Plachett Took A Hatchet
Lottie Plachett Took a Hatchet by Justin Elizabeth Sayre, is a high camp, high energy, comedy whodunnit, based on the infamous American murder case of the accused Lizzie Borden. The cast is an ensemble who bring a level of unpredictable, whirlwind comedy performances matched only by the grotesqueness of their mysterious and absurd characters.
It’s a very interesting retelling of this notorious story, so we were eager to ask writer Justin Elizabeth Sayre a few questions in order to find out more about it.
Do you think that the Lizzie Borden case - the historical inspiration for the play – is one of the first recorded cases when female power was underestimated?
Female power has almost always been underestimated, and that sad legacy haunts us to this day. I think what fascinates us about the Lizzie Borden case is the gore. Other women had killed, killed more people in fact, with far more scandalous stories, but with Lizzie, you get the frenzied gore-filled ‘whodunnit’ that keeps people up at night. The murders were brutal and ghastly, something that intrigued the public then, as it does now. I think Lizzie stands out for being accused of something so violent, a frantic attack on her father and stepmother with an axe. A quiet Sunday school teacher and spinster suddenly rises up and kills. “You always have to watch the quiet ones” the saying goes, and Lizzie plays right into that adage, to its most gruesome conclusion.
Lizzie Borden wasn’t convicted in 1860, as people didn’t think a woman who looked like her was capable of lifting an axe. They said she looked like “the perfect puritan” and therefore could not be guilty. Do you think there was a time in history when people conformed so strictly to rules that they actually did inhibit characteristics society didn’t want them to have? Is it theatre’s role to now reveal them as the completely fake constructs that they were and celebrate the positive ways people are diverse?
Of course. We must never forget that we’re pack animals, however evolved or separate we fancy ourselves. We have a strong biological urge to conform. We want to be part of the group because in many cases, our very survival hinges on it. I think we live in a time where social mores are certainly not as strict and foreboding as they were in perhaps the Victorian times, but there’s a different conformality. We all obey our phones; we’re all gleaning for approval. We’re all seeking to be liked and validated for the most mundane of tasks. It’s a different societal pressure, but one nonetheless.
And I think, as always, the theatre is a place for truth. It’s why it’s my favourite place in fact. In the theatre, we take a completely false experience, that of going to watch people pretend to be different people than those they are,in a different time, sometimes of a different gender or background, speaking different words than the ones we bandy about. But from this comes a completely truthful experience. An experience from which the audience and the actors learn something vital and vibrant about the human experience. I think that’s amazing and in some ways totally antithetical to the modern world, which takes so much truth and turns it all into a lie.
The theatre retains its role of telling the truth now, as it did then. In the Victorian era, you had brilliant writers like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw holding up the mirror as it were and questioning the way in which society was not serving its people, I think today the theatre holds the same task. I think the only difference is we have forgotten how to laugh at ourselves and to heal through joy, rather than continually oppressing ourselves with sorrow. But that could simply be the ranting of a comedy writer.
With so much going on in your play, what would you consider to be the main source of comedy?
I think there are a few different angles, and I wouldn’t write a play without a few ways into the fun. I think on the base there’s a certain absurdity, that I trace back to people like Charles Ludlam, and John Waters, who are huge influences on my work. I mean, a play about a lady axe murderer and the installation of a toilet? It’s not Ibsen. I think after that there’s the silliness of each of the characters. I, for instance, play the disgusting stepmother, BarfaPhelgm. She sounds just like the name, and much of the humour comes from each of the amazing actors in this company playing up the individual absurdities of their characters. I think lastly, it’s a commentary on the time; the 19th Century, and our own. We live in a sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic world, and so did they. While we like to think of ourselves as more evolved, and in many cases we are, we often still have a very long way to go. This play makes fun of their absurdity as it resembles our own. But beyond that, I think we’re still telling a very human story that touches on the truth of a powerless person taking her power back. In this time of turmoil and doom, I think that’s a message we can all get behind.
Do we need to be familiar with any Americana folklore or pop culture references to get the most from the play?
No, thank goodness. I think you shouldn’t have to study up to go to the theatre. I mean, if you’re an astute connoisseur of camp or the Lizzie Borden case there will be things you can get a little inside chortle about, but overall, I wanted to tell our own story. I think we live in a time of ever-changing reference points, and it would be folly to make a piece so heavy in allusions to other work that an audience feels left out of an experience. Don’t worry, the play translates. And I honestly think audiences in the UK will latch onto this raunchy little axe-murdering comedy in a very real way.
Do you think that the sexual depravity of the previous centuries was more extensive than we have ever been led to believe?
Yes and no. I think for male people, probably yes. I think there were many times in human history that were just as depraved if not more so than our own. I think the difference is less was talked about openly, and women until very recently in human history, and even not fully today, have the same footing on the sexual landscape. I think we’re still so backward in the ways that we think and talk about sex, even though its everywhere. Quantity does not imply quality, or even insight and certainly not thoughtfulness. I wish there was a bit more of that. I think in a way it would lead to less depravity and to more acceptance and enjoyment.
Finally, did Lottie Plachettactually took up a hatchet?
Ha-ha! But that will ruin the play! I think there’s a whole case to unfold with Lottie Plachett Took a Hatchet, and I would invite everyone to come and see it and find out for themselves. I know it’s my work, and I’m in it, but I can honestly say that this is one of the most pleasing experiences of my life as an artist. Our company is brilliant with Tom Lenk, Tom Detrinis, Ryan Garcia, Lauren Lopez, and me. Our direction is elegant and fast-paced thanks to our director, Jessica Hanna. Our show looks great, feels great, and if audiences thus far can be believed, feels great too. Come and solve the mystery of Lottie Plachett for yourself and laugh your way to the startling conclusion.
Lottie Plachett Took A Hatchet, Assembly Roxy (Upstairs), 8.35pm, 4-27 August (not 17)