The Case of Katherine Mansfield

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, The Edge, Auckland

22/08/2006 - 16/09/2006

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

18/01/2007 - 03/02/2007

Production Details

Written by Catherine Downes
Directed by Katie Wolfe
Produced by The Silo Theatre

Produced by The Silo Theatre

Award winning actress DANIELLE CORMACK takes to the stage to play literary icon Katherine Mansfield in a one-woman play celebrating the life of New Zealand’s most famed writer.

“…Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth…”

– Katherine Mansfield

Using Mansfield’s own words, taken from her letters, journals and stories, Cormack journey’s through the writer’s precocious template for living as an 18 year old to her premature death at 34. We share Mansfield’s frustration with the parochialism of early New Zealand, the anxiety and elation of her first years in London, the death of her brother and the frustrations of her marriage, the onset of tuberculosis, and above all, her passion for writing, which was to be the sustaining force of her life.

New Zealand actor and writer Catherine Downes collated the material for the script and first performed THE CASE OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD in Holland in 1978. Downes performed the show throughout the late seventies and until the early nineties to unanimous acclaim in England, Scotland, The Netherlands, America, Australia and New Zealand. The play won the Festival Times Award and the Scotsman Omnibus Award at the 1979 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, was awarded Best Radio Play ABC Australia in 1981 and was nominated for a PYE Award for Best Radio Play BBC World Service.

Directed by award winning director KATIE WOLFE, whose production of The Women was seen by more than 13,000 people nationally in 2005, this version of Mansfield focuses on shifting mood and nuance, sudden anger, self-deprecating humour, an acute eye for irony and the ridiculous, the joy and fear of living, the pose and the twinkle – with no gap present between the performer and the audience. The intimacy offered will be irresistible.

Performed by Danielle Cormack

Set and Costume Design Rachael Walker
Lighting Design Jane Hakaraia
Sound Design Jason Smith

Theatre , Solo ,

1hr, 20mins, no interval

KM from an AK standpoint?

Review by Judith Dale 10th Mar 2007

[From a larger article entitled The Lives of Girls and Women, written by Judith Dale for the Women’s Studies Association of NZ newsletter, which begins with a summary of the work of Canadian writer Alice Munro, described by Michelle Roberts as "is one of the great story-tellers of our time, descended from a line going back to Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield."]

The Case of Katherine Mansfield was written by Cathy Downes to perform herself as a one-woman show initially in Utrecht and London in 1978, then all around New Zealand and in many places elsewhere in over 1,000 performances. I saw it a couple of times in the 80s both here and in London. It’s almost entirely a compilation of Mansfield’s own words taken from her short stories, journals and letters, and is a fine tribute to a woman who wanted above all "to be a writer, a real writer."

Now the play has been revived, with Cathy’s blessing, by Auckland’s Silo theatre company, and was recently seen at Downstage, where Cathy is newly the director. The script seems to have been reworked, partly in the light of material brought to light with the publication of further Mansfield letters and notebooks, and revitalised by its director Katie Wolf and Danielle Cormack as Katherine Mansfield. This is (I think: it’s a long time ago) a brisker, trimmer, more assertive and perhaps more brittle KM than Downes’ and I appreciated the production’s panache in managing to convey without loss of, perhaps even heightening, a tragic passion in the Mansfield life-story. Someone described it to me as a ‘very Auckland’ production and for once I found myself appreciating that description.

Yet final credit remains with Cathy Downes who devised the show in the first place, since it has aged and revived so well. Katherine Mansfield, born in Wellington as Kathleen Beauchamp in 1888, is probably the person, woman and girl, whose writings have given New Zealanders of a certain age their strongest ‘images of women’, which have endured in the way literary images do: so many of the Mansfield stories minutely and precisely scrutinise the lives of girls and women.

Today’s women and girls live in a very different world from that of the 1970s and 80s when Downes, on the trail of Katherine Mansfield, wrote her play. One clear area of difference lies in changing expressions of sexuality—Alice Munro is astute and perceptive on this, too. The Silo production touring to Downstage has highlighted considerations of sexuality early in the script, through staged presentation and movement and with the insertion of KM’s admiring comments on Oscar Wilde. But to what end? What else are we offered on the subject?

Recent research findings have claimed more for Mansfield’s lesbian propensities than ever used to be said. Here, I was stunned by the bitterly sarcastic expressions of dislike, even abject repugnance this KM let loose in caricaturing her adoring and lifelong woman ‘partner’ Ida Constance Baker, known to her as LM. The words themselves come from the material which the script gives actor and director to work with, and this material comes from Mansfield’s own letters and journals. However, it’s always over to a production to interpret its material by choices of pace, volume, intonation and so on. We already know that KM was—in this stage-text, that she is, or can be—both self-focused and very nasty. So was Cormack’s expressed bitchiness towards LM meant simply as proof of KM’s nastiness? Or do we read it as a consciously theatrical expression, on the part of the production, of Mansfield’s struggle with her own homosexuality?

Is it—O heavens forfend—an aspect of that same ‘Auckland’ stance I was admiring? Or, with no sophistication at all, could it be some kind of unconscious homophobia on the part of the production team: unlikely, but not impossible, I suppose. What does Cathy Downes make of it, if that’s a proper question to pose (which it isn’t);  one could always ask her, on the grounds of professional interest, but I won’t.


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'False" life rings true

Review by Michael Wray 29th Jan 2007

Solo performance theatre is not my favourite format. Too often having just one actor demanding all of your focus feels like an effort – both for you and for the performer who has no collaborator to sustain them through lulls in energy. In this case, however, there is no such challenge. The play easily pulls you in and carries you gently along. It has a dreamlike, poetic quality in much the same way as Under Milk Wood last year.

Danielle Cormack really is Katherine Mansfield and she engages you so thoroughly and convincingly, you’d not only swear the show was much shorter than it is but forget entirely that it is a solo show.

The entire piece is performed on a small square set at a 45 degree angle to the main stage. This stage upon a stage takes up, at most, only a quarter of the actual stage itself. Outside of this square, the remainder is black and unlit. Katherine does not venture into this void. This is a vision of Mansfield in a kind of after-world, examining her life – examining the Case of Katherine Mansfield – and passing judgement on herself.

Knowledge of Mansfield’s life and work is not necessary to enjoy and understand this play, but anyone who arrives forearmed will very much relish and take pleasure in understanding the references. The play was written by Cathy Downes in 1978 using material from Mansfield’s own writing. Diaries, letters and stories have been plundered and re-assembled to make something new. Every word spoken is Mansfield’s own, although the description of her death has presumably come from elsewhere. I am in no position to list or identify the origins [It was John Middleton Murray’s account of her death – ed], but I left the theatre wanting to read her work.

Whilst the stage space for the performance is small and confined by invisible walls, it doesn’t feel that way. Cormack makes good use of the area, as a pole and a window (craftily suspended on an invisible wall) offer additional diversions. The square is populated with a small desk, a chair, myriad piles of books and a box of letters. These serve as props to move the monologue forward at intervals. Books are extracted from piles, diaries from the desk and letters from a box and delivered to the audience. A glass of water takes on an ever increasing importance as Mansfield’s submission to tuberculosis approaches the end. The play feels like it moves forward in a roughly chronological fashion, interweaving what I assume to be short story-sourced elements with biographical details.

The case of Katherine Mansfield is pronounced by the protagonist as typically false, but The Case of Katherine Mansfield rings true and is a truly rewarding experience.



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Dynamic show evokes spirit of writer

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Jan 2007

When she was eighteen years old Katherine Mansfield described herself as having a rapacious appetite for everything. Cathy Downes’s solo play about our most famous writer captures that rapaciousness in a fine, often moving, impressionistic portrait.

In a way the role of Katherine Mansfield is a gift for any actress because she sometimes never knew whether she was acting or living her own life, and often wondered if she had any real self left.

But the hardest thing to accomplish convincingly and entertainingly on stage is to convey what her friend Lady Ottoline Morell described as the fact that Katherine Mansfield was never "off duty" as a writer. Her every fleeting emotion seems to have been fodder for her as a writer.

With piles of books, boxes of letters, and diaries and journals on the floor and on the desk of Rachael Walker’s small square stage, The Case of Katherine Mansfield never lets us forget that the play is about a writer in love with the mystery and afterglow of words as we listen to brief extracts from the letters, the diaries and the stories: The Garden Party, The Doll’s House, Bliss.

Danielle Cormack with a knowing, defiant theatrical flair presents us with a writer constantly alert to herself as well as her effect on others (most often the audience).  She reads or rather acts the stories brilliantly, bringing to life all the characters. The emotional switchback rides – one moment she is young Katherine yearning for London as desperately as Chekhov’s sisters yearned for Moscow and the next she loathes London and can only love Paris – are astutely handled.

Although I could have done with out the birds twittering as a backdrop to the New Zealand childhood stories, there is an emotional clarity, which is enhanced by Jane Hakaraia’s excellent lighting, to Katie Wolfe’s production that is compelling and should anchor anyone who knows little of the details of Katherine Mansfield’s life.

But the evening belongs to Danielle Cormack who gives a dynamic performance that fully deserved her reception at the curtain call.


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A 'false' life delightfully distilled in truth

Review by John Smythe 20th Jan 2007

There’s a piece in The Case of Katherine Mansfield where KM talks about "the minute and delicate joy" she gets from watching "the detail of life, the life of life. When I write about ducks I swear that I am a white duck with a round eye, floating on a pond…"

In the same way Danielle Cormack becomes Katherine Mansfield, with a luminosity and lightness of being that belies the exacting craft work behind it. She delights in the role and delights us in the process – of being a writer, an actor, a New Zealander, a free spirit, then and now, in reality and in imagination.

Cormack has worked with director Katie Wolfe to revitalise playwright Cathy Downes’ original compilation, which ingeniously extracts an essence of KM from her journal, letters and stories. Since its 1978 debut – precipitating over a 1,000 solo performances by Downes herself in half a dozen countries – scholars and writers have brought more personal writings and insights to light and, with the blessing of Downes, Wolfe and Cormack have mined that resource too, not least adding a blistering account of life with DH and Frieda Lawrence.

They have also integrated excerpts from The Garden Party that were not in the original and trimmed the text elsewhere in favour of a more fluid flit, glide, dab, jab and soak (albeit brief) through key aspects of Mansfield’s too-short life. And the work of refining, reworking and revitalising has continued, rendering this ready-to-tour production significantly different from its Silo-produced debut at Auckland’s Herald Theatre last year.

The set, originally designed by Rachel Walker, is now a square island sporting piles of books, a box of letters, a stool, desk, chair and one floating window frame, adrift in a beyond-the-grave void that happily allows KM herself to voice John Middleton Murray’s account of her final hours (originally played, nearly 30 years ago, in voice-over by Paul Holmes). Jane Hakaraia’s lighting helps to convey the play through shifts in time, place and mood, while Jason Smith’s bird-song sound design offsets the intrusive sounds of boy-racers and sirens outside.

Almost entirely in Mansfield’s own words, the play captures her particular take on the universal quest for adventure, identity and authenticity. It begins and ends with the same quote: "Let me take the case of Katherine Mansfield. She has led, ever since she can remember, a very typically false life."

As Cormack’s KM delves into her published writings and private journal and letters, she becomes the characters and re-lives the experiences with an ease and grace that allows us direct access to the ruthlessness of childhood, the banalities of middle class family life, the thrill of taking risks and the discovery of the truths that lie beyond youthful, romantic ideals …

Lest we feel tempted to sanctify her, Mansfield’s viciously witty commentary on her loyal friend Ida Baker – cryptically called ‘LM’ by KM – is included without apology; a ‘real life’ echo of Lena Logan’s cruel taunting of the Kelveys in The Doll’s House. Her black fits and capacity for hatred also reveal the wholeness of her humanity, increasing, paradoxically, our respect for her.

The question of KM’s sexuality is deftly dealt with early on by juxtaposing the impression a matey workman makes on a young woman (in The Garden Party) with her love of Oscar Wilde and of New Zealand’s natural beauties, as she rediscovers an early short story. Leves Amores captures a prosaic yet subtly sensuous encounter in a Thistle Hotel room between a woman and a non-gender-specific narrator who fears youth may be dead. Cormack makes no attempt to masculinise her voice, as she does elsewhere in the play, and the result is intensely sexy.

Which brings me to a quibble. Unless, on the night I saw it, Cormack inadvertently leapt forward to being "In London" before returning to KM’s early writing (1907, aged 18), it seems she and Wolfe have chosen to relocate the Thistle Inn in London (where KM had gone to school before returning in 1906). As I understand it, she wrote the story at home in Thorndon, Wellington, which had a Thistle Hotel in Mulgrave Street and the resulting kerfuffle with her father precipitated her permanent exile from NZ. Certainly the creative mind is unconstrained by geography but it needs to be noted that dining out and going to the opera, as mentioned in the story, were entirely credible activities in Wellington in those days. Operatic recitals, at least, had been a regular feature of Wellington’s entertainment scene since the late 1860s.

Also (while I’m back on my hobby-horse about our collective responsibility to claim our cultural distinction at every opportunity), I am happy to accept that KM herself had adopted an English accent but cannot help but wonder why Pat the handyman, in Prelude, is given an Irish accent when it’s not written thus – and KM did delight in spelling out alien accents and speech impediments. Yes I know it’s logically possible. It’s just that, despite her love-hate relationship with her home town, KM’s New Zealand stories were acutely observed from real life and – given Kiwi accents were certainly well established by the turn of the century – it seems a shame not to recognise that.

But nothing can detract from the fact that the 80-odd minutes that Danielle Cormack graces the stage are a wonderful gift to Wellington. If KM’s life was "typically false", this performance is just as typically true to the spirit of an extraordinary person.

The production deserves full houses. As a never-irrelevant insight into our literary heritage, it will add great value to any festival or town that chooses to embrace it.

Remarkably, despite Cathy Downes’ formative association with Downstage, this is the first time The Case of Katherine Mansfield has been performed there. Having devised it in London where she’d co-founded the Heartache and Sorrow Theatre Group and premiered it in Holland (1978) before taking it to the Edinburgh Festival, she brought in home as part of an Australasian tour in 1980. Unable to get a spot at Downstage’s Hannah Playhouse, her Wellington venue was over the road in the space now known as BATS. When she revived it in 1988 for the centenary of KM’s birth, the venue was the National Library Auditorium. It has therefore had to wait for Downes to become the Director of Downstage to claim what feels like its rightful home, and it’s ironic yet somehow refreshing that this has happened with a new production that originated in Auckland.


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Provocative Mansfield motivating

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 24th Aug 2006

I confess – I knew little about Katherine Mansfield before I saw this play. In retrospect, I’m pleased I was therefore able to come to know this extraordinary New Zealander with fresh eyes and ears, through the winning combination of Catherine Downes’ well-chosen words, Katie Wolfe’s intelligent direction, and Danielle Cormack’s evocative performance.

Based on journals, letters and stories of Katherine Mansfield, Downes has taken up the daunting challenge of presenting the world and emotions of this famous writer (it premiered in 1978 with Downes herself in the role). She successfully captures Mansfield’s frustrations, as well as documenting her short but extraordinary life.

Cormack brings depth and pathos to KM, though pity would be the last thing Mansfield would have wanted. But the sad fact remains, this literary gift’s reign was all to brief as she succumbed to TB, at just 34.

Cormack captures this strong woman’s battle with sickness and sadness so well, from the initial nagging cough, to the harrowing monosyllabic diary entries during her darkest days. Though physically, Cormack is every bit the persona of Mansfield, it is her voice that makes her performance so engaging. Always beautiful, especially as she reads passages of Mansfield’s actual stories, her warm silky vocal quality reveals a deep empty tone, as the sickness takes hold of her.

Wolfe shows excellent judgment with stillness and silence, for example allowing Cormack to establish herself in good time at the top of the evening, to great effect. The way Cormack wanders towards her set, looking bemused, almost perplexed, made me feel Mansfield may have viewed aspects of her own life in a similar way: how dare a provocative woman of risk, who desires power, wealth and above all, freedom, be restricted by this cage-like little box.

The confines of designer Rachael Walker’s clever set further bring to mind, the claustrophobia Mansfield must have felt within her family, her home country, and her sex.

The striking photo of Cormack’s challenging stare, has been used in the production’s press material, programme, and is repeated as part of Walker’s set. To use that piercing gaze so often leaves an indelible impression, fitting for a work, which is so significant to New Zealand’s literary history.

After seeing this play, and in particular, having heard Cormack read passages from two of Mansfield’s short stories, I am motivated to read a great deal more of her works. Is there a nobler objective for mounting such plays, than to inspire your audience in this way?


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