“Mrs President” by John Ransom Phillips, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

C ARTS | C venues | C aquila – Temple
14:30 – 1 hour
Group: Rec Room Arts and Art Pond Foundation (New York, USA)
8-27 Aug (not 14 and 21). 

**** (Four-star review) 


 “I’m an alchemist of the wet plate persuasion” is one of Christopher Kelly’s many poetic lines as he portrays Civil War photographer Matthew Brady in a play which is receiving its UK premiere. We are in the Lincoln presidency and learn that it was Brady’s photo of Lincoln at Cooper Union that did much to help Abe win the 1860 election.  


Christopher Kelly and LeeAnne Hutchison.


This seductive and uplifting piece is by John Ransom Phillips. It is set in Brady’s Washington studio but has a broad sweep both in terms of conjuring up the period and drawing a few prescient parallels with our own day. The presentation style varies between naturalistic acting of the highest order and physical theatre featuring stylized gestures (sometimes resembling a frieze) which are so bold and such a logical conclusion to each sequence that they are in no way mannered. 

The other principal figure (though many contemporaries feature briefly) is of course title character Mary Lincoln née Todd played by LeeAnne Hutchison. Despite a high level of education and staunch support of her husband that drew on both academic and native intelligence, Mary did not have the winning qualities of her spouse. She was regarded as a rube and a meddler by Washington sophisticates and even accused of treachery because her brother had served with the Confederacy. Hutchison’s technical excellence as she undresses both herself and the character serves to make us ponder the legacy. Mary was also a spendthrift; it’s a competitive field but among prodigal decorators of the White House, Mary Lincoln stands second only to Jackie Kennedy who did at least exercise impeccable taste. 


Christopher Kelly and LeeAnne Hutchison.


Brady sees photographers as a new priesthood within American society and has assumed the role of presiding eminence. He says that prominent members of society are shaping the world in part due to how creative photographers have shaped them. Brady also makes repeated references to sculpture. Later, Kelly shows his versatility as he morphs into the charismatic Anglo-French naturalist and painter John James Audubon. Further on, there is a darker tone as Kelly becomes yet another Brady subject, abolitionist John Brown who is being executed for the failed incitement of a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry.  

Edinburgh is surely full of photographers at present and I hope many of them see this. Mrs President excels at so many levels including linguistics with dialect consultant Molly Wetzel helping the actors sound authentic with rhoticity and breadth of ‘a’s. The period feel works. Props are convincing; you could suppose that Brady might take his enormous plate camera out onto the precursor of the Beltway and obtain images. There is some apt original music by Phillip Owen who I believe uses vibraphone (perhaps glockenspiel) and later cello.   

The play gives up its secrets slowly and a little reluctantly. There is an extra level in that in their first incarnations, Hutchison and Kelly are ghosts who have been observing Brady and his sitters. I just wonder if director Lily Wolff might have worked with the author to make this clearer; I was puzzled while I should have been following the main narrative. 

If I could summon up Brady’s spirit I should want to congratulate him not just on his brilliance and physical courage (he was nearly taken prisoner in Prince William County when getting too close to a battle) but would also tell him that every medium is transitory or at least doomed to share space. If we remember Lincoln now it is not for the Brady image on a banknote but for Daniel Day-Lewis in the film. Mary Lincoln has become actress Sally Field also from the film. 

A broader arc of history is sketched for us here. Delicate hints as to the future include Mary’s rueful reflection that photographs ostensibly showing president and first lady side by side have in fact seen them come together in the dark room. Similarly, as she complains that every inch of her body seems to have been photographed we can peer forward to the first paparazzi in the 1940s. Mrs Lincoln may be the focus but this is also a paean to photography as high art and certainly not a trade though it should be remembered that Brady had multiple offices and employed many assistants. 

Mrs President underlines its creator’s range of interests; John Ransom Phillips is a painter, writer and film maker. He has a deep knowledge of photography and American politics. As Brady says at the beginning, there is much alchemy here and indeed magic. Wonderful.