Interview: Ashley Winter and Christopher Montague, Skin Deep

Attila Theatre’s Skin Deep was first performed last year at the London Horror Festival, where the festival’s patron Nicholas Vince commented, “This is physical ensemble theatre in its purest form and will haunt me for days.” This week, Attila bring their gruesome true story to the Camden Fringe, opening tonight at the Lion and Unicorn.

Skin Deep is the origin story of real-life historical figure Erzsébet Báthory – branded the world’s most prolific female serial killer,” says Ashley Winter, who plays her. “We explore her childhood, marriage to soldier Ferenc Nadasdy, and the events that led to her very first murder. It’s also a love story between Erzsebet and her handmaid Lucie.”

The show is an obvious must for horror fans, “but also fans of ensemble theatre, feminist theatre, physical theatre…” says Ashley.

“All the above, but especially female theatre makers,” agrees director Christopher Montague. “We may have stumbled upon an iconic female character from history, so underrepresented and interesting that people will want to explore her life for years to come. Ashley plays her brilliantly, and it is a very desireable role in my eyes; hopefully in twenty years’ time we’ll be talking about the character Báthory in the same way we talk about Richard III.

“We’ve slapped a 14+ recommendation on the play, purely because of foul language and violent imagery – we don’t want to warp any young minds. That will happen without our input. The play is nowhere near as gruesome as it could’ve been, so even if you’re a bit squeamish, you’ll be fine!”

Ashley’s hoping audiences will come away as obsessed with Báthory as she is: “I think the most interesting thing about her is that her actual real-life existence is so removed from the image of the sexy, vampish killer that pop culture has bestowed upon her. She’s been appropriated by the goth community as this macabre pin-up, but we really have no way of knowing what she was like, what motivated her, what she wanted from life.

“I think it’s important to look at how history represents those in the past; Erzsébet’s name was considered a curse word for 100 years after she died – but her husband Ferenc, ‘The Black Knight’, is still considered to be a national hero in Hungary, despite being known for his horrendous and brutal torture of Turks in the Ottoman war. Gender inequality presents itself in many ways and Erzsébet Báthory – the most famous woman of her time – has not escaped it. We wanted to present an Erzsébet that was a product of the brutal time in which she existed, but try to steer clear of culturally presented clichés about ‘dangerous women’.”

The first version of the show, produced in late 2016 for the London Horror Festival, was developed in just three weeks. Since then it’s changed quite dramatically: “We brought director Ailin Conant on board, whose experience working in physical theatre, mask and puppetry helped us develop the physical language and the multiple ‘worlds’ of the play,” explains Ashley. “We’ve introduced a chorus of maids to the piece too, who are present on stage most of the time; you get to see much more of the immense dichotomy between the rich and poor of the time. Erzsébet’s story has become more about the struggle to break free from societal constraints relating to gender and social status.”

“The show is a little less sensationalist this time around,” adds Christopher. “Last year, performing the show on Halloween weekend and with little time to really explore the story we wanted to tell, we opted for a version of the show that was overall darker, included more torture and more blood. Don’t worry gore-fans, there’s still a fair bit, but in the interests of creating a dramatic story arc, we’ve focused more on the character’s relationships and making them all fully developed, rather than just victims.

“Also, I no longer perform in the show as ‘Percy’ the pigkeeper boy, much to many people’s dismay. It was decided my skills could be used elsewhere.”

So why should people come and see Skin Deep? “Because we worked really hard on it?” suggests Christopher. “Brush away the Edinburgh blues and see some of the amazing work that’s right on your doorstep at the Camden Fringe!”

Ashley expands, “Firstly, it will defy expectations about who Báthory was. We have an amazing female-heavy cast who have incredible energy and passion for the show. The music is totally brilliant – designed by the talented Ross Kernahan – and gives the whole show this creeping tension that builds to a furious ending. It’s surprisingly funny too! It’s a fast-paced physical show with really taut dialogue, so if you’re not into stuffy history plays then it’s definitely for you.”

“I’d love for audiences to see something of a contemporary ‘history’ play,” adds Christopher. “A lot of plays you see that explore historical figures tend to include large monologues and elaborate set design that mirror the time of their life – whereas being an emerging company with training in ensemble theatre, our instincts led us to this stripped back design, which allows us to fully utilise the large cast and their talents. Plays about history don’t have to simply be biopics. We’ve definitely taken liberty with the truth at times, but always in the interest of making a better show. Hopefully audiences will forgive us for that!”

Ashley and Christopher started Attila Theatre after graduating from the University of Reading. “We didn’t start with any aims, other than to start making our own work and see what naturally came out of that,” Ashley explains. “We’ve discovered that we’re interested in telling stories about women in traditionally male realms. We’re very much inspired by companies like Told by an Idiot – irreverent, funny, daring and devised!”

“After making a few shows and having a decent network of friends with theatre companies in London, my main goal is to stay in amongst these people and keep making work,” says Christopher. “Sounds simple, but there’s a huge amount to be said for companies like us being ‘in the same boat’ as all the others who are struggling to get funding, working two jobs alongside rehearsals etc. The knowledge that we’re all still doing it despite the difficulties, for me, is a testament to the artists who make the work and the support they provide each other.”

Skin Deep opens at the Lion and Unicorn on 31st July and runs until 6th August.

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