Julia Pastrana’s life story was a tragic one. Born with hypertrichosis, a genetic condition that covered her entire body with black hair, Pastrana became known as the “Ape Woman” and gained notoriety in the 19th century. Travelling with a freak show through Russia under her abusive husband and manager Theodore Lent, she was continually objectified as an exhibit in a human museum.
Since reading about Pastrana in Frederick Drimmer’s Very Special People six years ago, Perth-born playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff was determined to bring it to the stage. In 2013 he wrote A Perfect Specimen as part of the Black Swan Emerging Writers Group and received a Malcolm Robertson Award. This year, the work makes its debut in the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s program.
“Nathaniel has a really juicy story with a lot of heart,” says Adriane Daff, the actress who plays Julia Pastrana.
Much of the play unfolds through intimate moments shared between Pastrana and Lent, who’s played by Luke Hewitt. Having worked with Hewitt previously, Daff feels that the pair’s creative relationship is such that they will be able to thoroughly explore the toxicity between the two main characters.
“When you know people well, you’re in a safe place to play and discover,” says Daff. “The real challenge will be to enrich every moment with an authenticity and believability. Even though it’s a bizarre relationship, there will be elements people can relate to.”
Despite being an extraordinary story set in particular time, A Perfect Specimen has relevance to society today. The comparison between 19th-century audiences to contemporary ones is particularly interesting. Going to a freak show seems wildly inappropriate now, but how different is it to society’s fascination with reality television?
“It’s easy to think back to the past and think, well, people were different back then,” says Daff. “I tend to think that people are people. We still have that voyeuristic curiosity but we go home and Google in the privacy and darkness of our own home. We don’t think benefiting from beauty is as awful as people benefiting from ‘ugliness’.”