Rebecca Vaughan's Female Gothic

The playwright and actor's new one-woman show draws on the 'eerie, macabre and subtly terrifying' gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries

Following sparkling reviews at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival, Dyad Productions' latest show, Female Gothic, is set to tour venues across Northern Ireland during February 2013.

The show is another collaboration between Dyad and director, Guy Masterson – who won an Olivier award for Morecamb – and was written by prolific playwright and performer, Rebecca Vaughan.

Female Gothic is a production that draws on the centuries-old tradition of simple storytelling. On stage there is but a single character – the narrator, here played by Vaughan. Sound and lighting are used to add texture to the piece, but what matters most are the words, and the way in which the the audience responds to them imaginatively.

Vaughan has written and starred in several other productions, such as Austen's Women and I, Elizabeth, a chronicle of the life of Queen Elizabeth I. Female Gothic, however, originates from her love of gothic fiction. Reading the introduction to a collection of MR James’ stories, Vaughan was intrigued to learn that many of the most popular horror tales of the Victorian and Edwardian eras were written by women.

'Famous in their own day, these stories are now largely forgotten,' says Vaughan, referring to those works which have perhaps not enjoyed the same success or longevity as Mary Shelley's seminal novel, Frankenstein. 'The authors are forgotten also,' adds Vaughan, 'or, like George Eliot, Edith Wharton and E Nesbit, are known only for their other works.'

Vaughan thereafter discovered hundreds of stories produced by women such as ME Braddon, author of the novel Lady Audley's Secret, amongst other, darker tales, and realised that they might provide the basis for a new theatrical production. It was an exciting discovery. 'I felt there had to be a show here,' Vaughan beams.

Further research revealed key differences between gothic fiction written by male and female authors in the 18th and 19th centuries. 'Whereas male writers tended to produce stories with immediate, visceral impact,' Vaughan explains, 'those written by women concealed the horror, revealing their truths in a more subtle and, I believe, terrifying fashion.'

In a broader sense, the nature of the stories says much about the roles consigned to women in Victorian times too, as they frequently found their aspirations blocked and their paths mapped out by social rules and conventions.

In order for female authors to make money from their work at the time, Vaughan also observed that they were often forced to conceal their true identities behind male aliases or by using initials.

It is little wonder that Victorian and Edwardian women, excluded from so much of society, powerless as individuals, were such prolific exponents of the form. And no wonder either that so many of their stories explore what might come after death, when constraints are removed and the downtrodden are (as it was perceived at the time) provided with the freedom to judge and to punish their oppressors.

Female Gothic tells four stories: three classic gothic horror tales, and the narrator’s own autobiographical account, which she weaves in and out of the other narratives. The three stories that form the bulk of the production are 'Five Senses' and 'The Shadow', both by E Nesbit, and 'The Cold Embrace' by ME Braddon. The narrator’s own story is drawn from elements of Vaughan’s wider reading.

The stories are typically eerie, macabre, and subtly terrifying. All begin harmlessly enough, but the various protagonists soon lose control of their own destinies and fall prey to forces they can’t understand and can’t overcome. Vaughan tells these stories in her own inimitable way.

The dynamics of a solo performance differ greatly from those of a cast production. In the latter, the characters interact with each other, and rarely is the fourth wall breached. In a solo show such as Female Gothic, however, that barrier does not exist. Vaughan speaks directly to the audience, and the audience are as much a part of the overall production as the staging or costume.

Vaughan describes this engagement with the audience as 'an ingredient vital to the energy and atmosphere of the experience', and she very much enjoys that interactive element to her shows, where each audience member goes away with their own unique memories of the paired-down production.

Vaughan recalls the reaction to the Edinburgh Festival production of Female Gothic as 'astonishing', and hopes that Northern Irish audiences will be just as terrified and satified as their Scottish counterparts.

Female Gothic begins its Northern Irish tour at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on February 6, and will finish at The Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry on February 13.