The hoopla around the Bristol Old Vic’s mega production of The Life And Times of Fanny Hill has been huge. Most of this centres on the titillating factors surrounding the play’s origins as the most sensational, and outrageous, pornographic novel of the 18th Century. But actually, April de Angelis’ recent reworking of John Cleland’s novel is much more feminist than you might imagine for a piece about prostitution.
I’ll make no bones of the fact that I’m a feminist who is strongly opposed to the sex industry (not to the women who work in the industry, but to the men who exploit those women and to a society which enables this to happen). But this post isn’t the place to wade into that debate. But with this in mind, I ventured out to see The Life And Times of Fanny Hill with my feminist principles firmly in my pocket. As it turns out, there was no need to worry.
In de Angelis’ recreation of the novel, Fanny (played wonderfully by a dishevelled Caroline Quentin) is in her middle years and approached by a noble statesman (Mawgan Gyles) who has inherited her gambling debt… and requests she pays her debt off by penning her salacious memoirs, which he will publish and make his fortune (in turn becoming a pornographer himself, despite his facade of distaste for the whole industry of sex). Fanny negotiates herself a 15% cut and promptly sets to work… yet realises she has no memory of her exploits as a woman of the night because they have all blurred into one since she worked so much “in the dark”.
So she enlists the help of two sister prostitutes, Louisa (Phoebe Thomas) and Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth), who recreate their own stories for Fanny with the help of a panting Dingle (Nick Barber), and here the bawdy exploits unfurl. Scene after scene is literally re-enacted as Fanny scribbles feverishly on paper, delighted at how well the book is coming together. So much so that she has no intention of her debtor getting his hands on her hand work. We learn how teenage Fanny was duped into a life of prostitution, not knowing what she was doing and having no means to stop it once she found out.
The stream of realities of life working on the streets peels away. No more the glamour, decadence and ‘happy hooker’ sham that Cleland and a million others have willingly painted in an attempt to ease their own consciences (or bury their heads in the sand). Instead, Fanny, Louisa and Swallow recount tales of abuse, rape, violence, dead babies, murder and a stream of other miseries and indignities that they suffered at the hands of punters, and at the hands of a society that condemns them for no other reason than the fact they had a shitty start in life.
It’s all dealt with sensitively, shockingly and abruptly. Quentin and Keyworth in particular are outstanding in their roles in Fanny Hill, melding the younger and the older and the sadness and jadedness of their lives. There is the sense that the women are survivors of circumstances, not victims of privileged men. Fanny teaches her debtor a harsh lesson, while exposing his own hypocritical lasciviousness, and ultimately reclaims her own life story (which isn’t her own to start with) and control of her destiny.
It’s interesting that the destiny of Fanny in the play and Fanny in the novel is very different - with male novelist Cleland painting Fanny as going off to a happy life of contentment, while female playwright de Angelis shows a more realistic view of Fanny descending into a sad, alcoholic, lonely twilight, where her comrades have desperately abandoned her in the hope of being considered respectable by the critical society that caused their downfall in the first place.
The Life and Times of Fanny Hill is performed at Bristol Old Vic until March 7. Click here for more information and to book tickets.