Becoming the Courtesan – a remarkable seduction

BATS Theatre, Wellington

10/01/2009 - 17/01/2009

Production Details

Becoming the Courtesan – a remarkable seduction

Spoilt rich boy Lorenzo must master his abhorrence of the fairer sex in order to produce a legitimate heir and keep his substantial inheritance, so he approaches a professional, the acclaimed Courtesan ‘La Cochineal’.

In one pivotal night, can her song teach Lorenzo the skills necessary to overcome his desires towards men, or could this be the first time her voice will fail her? In a bedroom full of secrets, what terrible truths are waiting to be exposed?

Neither Lorenzo nor the Courtesan will leave the room unchanged . . . Let the remarkable seduction begin

BECOMING THE COURTESAN is a dramatic and soaring piece of lyric theatre, which will explore why so often, the relationship between the sexes must always be defined by sex.

Jamie Burgess & Karen Anslow know something of the value of a deep friendship; after living together for seven years they should! It can take extraordinary circumstances to allow a man and a woman to have a platonic relationship of this kind, and they bring their experience to this new work. Together, they have created a night at the theatre that they have always wanted to see!

Becoming the Courtesan – a remarkable seduction
10th-17th JANUARY 2009, 9:30pm
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce
Bookings: or (04) 802 4175

Costume and Dramaturgy by Paul Jenden
Visual Effects Design:  Ian Harman
Lighting Design: Rosie Olsen

Stage Manager: Corinne Simpson
Stage Crew: Kent Robinson
Operator:  Deb McGuire
Make-Up and Hair: Hayley Ness
Construction & Safety:  Blair Ryan
Publicity Manager:  Brianne Kerr
Publicity Design: Graeme Offord @ G Design
Sound Design:  Music arranged and programmed by Jamie Burgess; Recorded by Gil-Eva Craig @ Western Audio; Live sound mixed with assistance from Gil

1 hr 5 mins, no interval

Doesn't quite come off

Review by Lynn Freeman 22nd Jan 2009

Courtesans were fascinating creatures, vessels of pleasure for those who could afford them but the pleasure they promised made them powerful in their own right.

This is explored by Karen Anslow and Jamie Burgess in Becoming a Courtesan, where we meet Cochineal in her boudoir greeting and seducing the son of one of her elderly wealthy lovers.
Lorenzo quite clearly "bats for the other team" but in order to get his hands on his inheritance he must produce an heir.

The two friends/actors/writers have come up with an intriguing scenario, and Burgess has also arranged some gorgeous songs to accompany the action. Anslow has a glorious voice, full of emotion.

And yet, despite the music, the enthusiastic performances, and some beautiful staging using red draped curtains, Becoming the Courtesan doesn’t quite come off.

Partly we don’t learn enough about Cochineal when she was simply Catherine, a courtesan in training. This is the most interesting part of the story and we do find out about her and her female coach throughout the 65 minutes.  More please!

Partly also the two characters are out of balance, Lorenzo’s character needs beefing up if we are to believe the final scenes. A lengthy dialogue is a tricky thing to write and perform and this play isn’t helped by some clunky writing "of the period" which makes it feel stilted and awkward at times.

The costumes by Paul Jenden are luscious and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s direction has some great touches.


Make a comment

Manners and mores of the past explore timeless emotions

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 17th Jan 2009

"I’m not some whore, I’m an artist," says La Cochineal, the pampered courtesan, to her latest client who is sexually inexperienced and the son of her wealthy patron. She tells the young Lorenzo that outside is a world of lies, while inside is her bed of truth, which is covered in black silk sheets.

The theatrical year starts, as it did last year, with a local play set in seventeenth century Europe. Simon Vincent’s A Renaissance Man was a comic fantasy inspired by the life of John Donne, Becoming the Courtesan, set "somewhere around Venice," starts as a comedy with double entendres flying back and forth between the courtesan and Lorenzo. It also uses, coincidentally, the words of a Donne poem for one of the half-dozen songs.

It’s almost as if we are about to witness a pastiche of a  short comic play by Marivaux but the bed of truth starts to impose itself as we are exposed to the cross-currents of the relationship of both with the unseen patron and father.

Lorenzo has to learn to overcome his abhorrence of sex with a woman so that he can produce an heir and retain his inheritance from his father, accept his father’s sadomasochistic relationship with La Cochineal, and what that has meant to his mother.

There’s a lot of talk of events long past and only once does it become theatrically compelling (enhanced by a piece of stage magic) when Lorenzo describes his love for his handsome cousin. Becoming the Courtesan is a play with songs, but only the songs that La Cochineal sings in her role of a courtesan make much sense; there’s no theatrical necessity for the others. The ending is unflinchingly melodramatic with the outside world of lies invading the bed of truth.

The visual effects of Ian Harman’s elegantly arranged bright red curtains dominate the stage suggesting a world of luxury as well as of menace and ambiguity particularly when the curtains strangely open and close and mysterious human figures appear behind them.

Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s stylish production, Paul Jenden’s lavish costumes, and the performances of Jamie Burgess and Karen Anslow are all carefully integrated and suggest the wealth, manners and mores of a past long lost to us though the human emotions are still the same as now.

NOTE: This was written for the Dominion Post which has not run it.


Make a comment

Impressive debut pits the joys of seduction against self-loathing

Review by John Smythe 11th Jan 2009

Once more BATS opens their year with the world premiere of a play set in the European Renaissance and written by young Kiwi player-playwrights. Last year it was Simon Vincent’s A Renaissance Man, a ripping yarn snippet of John Donne’s life; this year we are graced with Becoming the Courtesan – a remarkable seduction, written and performed by Jamie Burgess and Karen Anslow. If it happens next year it’ll be a tradition.

While the former is set in Elizabethan England, I take the latter to be set in Venice, given a young man called Lorenzo is apparently seeking the services of a courtesan called La Cochineal (previously known as Catherine), and the splendid costumes by Paul Jenden are of that time and place.

The play is largely a duologue between Lorenzo and La Cochineal punctuated with six songs – two reprised – composed by Burgess (one using the words of John Donne’s poem ‘Stay Oh Sweet’). The action is also enhanced when the set’s cochineal-red curtains and deeper-hued silk sheets mysteriously move independently of the actors at times, as if enlivened by the secrets known only to this repository of truthful intimacies amid a world of deceit (visual effects designed by Ian Harman and executed by stage manager Corinne Simpson and Kent Robinson).

Directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, this staging offers a stylish manifestation of past experiences, illusory presence and subjectivity amid the pair’s more immediate objectives. Lorenzo’s is to secure his inheritance by becoming capable of producing an heir, despite his preference for men, ignorance of women and deep-set disgust at female parts. Cochineal’s is to enlighten him as to the wonders of womanhood and heterosexual seduction.

En-route, her tale of how young Catherine became the courtesan La Cochineal, and his tortuous progress to this anxiety-producing situation, are revealed. While she luxuriates in her lot, claiming to have always desired this role, he is riddled with self-loathing and emotional trauma steeped in ambivalence towards his beauty-worshipping libidinous father and sympathy for his less-than-fulfilled mother.

The idea that La Cochineal is a disinterested party who can help him fake it for the sake of his future fortunes proves a fallacy when her story turns out to be more intertwined with his than he had realised. The shocking outcome, whereby the total supplanting of Catherine by La Cochineal becomes irretrievable, serves as a warning that we deny our own and each other’s sexuality at our peril: a timeless and universal truth.

It’s a strong premise, well worthy of theatrical exploration, and giving it this historical and geographical perspective is a valid way of reaching into our cultural heritage to confront the issues of today. For example, I cannot help wondering if the turmoil that seethes within Lorenzo has some parallel in the warped motivations behind the recent spate of prostitute murders in Christchurch.

Opening night got off to a wobbly start. The unexplained (and inexcusable?) 18-minute delay was almost redeemed by the intriguing animation of curtains and sheets but Burgess sang his opening song with so little projection against the recorded music I assumed his microphone was faulty until I realised he wasn’t wearing one. Nor should they need to at BATS. Was it a debilitating attack of nerves or a conscious decision to play Lorenzo as deeply introspective which was technically misjudged? Either way his ‘Men Beware’ warning went largely unheard, possibly robbing us of a key understanding of where Lorenzo is coming from.

Anslow’s La Cochineal fared better in sharing her opening song ‘Pleasure’, and the show soon gained traction. Both performers are NASDA-trained and show excellent musicality in their singing. (There is mention in the programme of "live sound mixed" and I’m not sure if that suggests some sort of vocal amplification was intended but as it stands some softer passage are subverted by the recorded music levels.)

Culinary euphemisms for the business at hand allow humour to pave the way for the more penetrating drama to follow and the opposition Lorenzo brings to what Cochineal is attempting to achieve is well crafted to generate conflict.

Acting-wise Anslow modulates her performance well, intelligently seeking to differentiate past from present, Catherine from Cochineal, sincerity from role-playing. The idea that singing is one of the means by which she imbues her pupil with the arts of seduction is a wee bit contrived but Anslow takes it on with great conviction, compelling us to believe.

Burgess’s more muted Lorenzo somehow feels at arms length from the actor; he has either not yet fully inhabited the role or not yet found a way of drawing us into his subjective world. Either way his actions seemed rehearsed rather than spontaneous, even though he, more than she, is supposed to be experiencing something extremely unusual for the very first time. Again, this may have been an opening night nerves thing.

The text – created in tandem by Burgess and Anslow – is linguistically rich in both quality and quantity. Either it could be trimmed to better focus the immediate concerns of the characters or the performances could be better directed towards recreating the immediacy of each action and reaction, so that we in the audience are more engaged by what they are experiencing here and now. Perhaps it’s just that the writers need to leave the actors to get on with it, allowing them to rediscover their characters afresh.

As a composer Jamie Burgess blends Renaissance / baroque with a modern musical style to pleasing melodic effect. There is no musical director credited and I rather think more could be done to maximise the value of the songs and their non-narrative, poetic lyrics, not least by having the characters own them with more immediate purpose.

The commitment with which this ambitious project has been brought into this its first season – "with a budget of love and generosity" – can only be applauded. Already impressive in this debut, I trust it will quickly become itself and prove to be worthy of further seasons with (as they hope) live music.


Jamie Burgess January 15th, 2009

John, thanks for your considered and gorgeously intellegent review... Some of the production team actually changed after we had the programmes printed, so if it's possible, could you correct the credits? Lighting Design: Rosie Olsen, Stage Manager: Corinne Simpson, Stage Crew: Kent Robinson... We are so proud of our production and yes, we look forward to singing along with a tight 6 piece ensemble one of these (more well funded!) days... Once again, many thanks!


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council