What do pop stars Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus have in common with the former Queen of France, Marie Antoinette? Quite a bit, if you ask Marin Ireland, currently playing the doomed matriarch in David Adjmi's play at Soho Rep.
Ireland (reasons to be pretty, The Big Knife) has a long history with the titular character, having begun readings of the play in 2007. In the six years since, as she continued to perform the role of the girl from Austria who found herself married at age 14 to Louis-Auguste of France, Ireland noticed frequent similarities between Antoinette and the young celebrities whose names filled the headlines.
Written in 20th-century colloquial language, and with the actors dressed in modern-day costumes, the dialogue in Marie Antoinette sometimes feels more reminiscent of an episode of "Girls" than that of 18th century France — especially when Antoinette tearfully reminisces with her friends about being homesick for Austria and how isolated she feels in France.
"It's about a girl who went through a lot of trauma in her childhood and felt really abandoned and was suddenly put in the position of impossible responsibility without being prepared for it at all," Ireland said of the play. "And [she] was sort of relentlessly punished for her ignorance, even though there was nobody around who really helped her or cared about her." Antoinette, who was crowned Queen at age 19, despite having little education or preparation for the responsibility, was criticized for her lavish spending and luxurious lifestyle while the people of France suffered famine and poverty. She and her family were eventually imprisoned in 1792, before being beheaded at the guillotine in 1793.
While she was in power, Antoinette was forced to endure rumors about her love life, including whispers of affairs with both men and women.
"I feel like Marie really felt like the more she could engage with her public who disapproved...the more she could explain herself, the better," Ireland said. "I feel there's that loop she was stuck in for a very long time, trying to respond to the criticism directly, which I do feel like happens a lot now. And, people get confused that if something goes wrong and suddenly everybody's mad at them, in this culture, that they have to take to social media and have some kind of public interaction. I feel like that's so dangerous for anyone to do."
Marie Antoinette's 2012 production at Yale Repertory Theatre was as lavish as the Queen herself was rumored to be, complete with costume and hair changes between every scene and wigs reaching three-feet high. The play's Soho Rep production is much smaller, with fewer changes of clothing and hair.
Ireland, however, said Antoinette’s hairstyles depict her state of well-being throughout the play: "It starts out three-feet tall in the first scene…then her hair is completely white and just starts falling out, and then they cut her hair off so it doesn't blunt the blade of the guillotine."
Ireland also noted a "weird connection between these young, over-exposed, hypersexualized girls and shaving off their hair," remembering that during the first reading, Britney Spears had shaved her head, and also referring to Miley Cyrus' recent haircut.
The irony of beginning performances during the shutdown of the American government — since Marie Antoinette depicts the fall of a monarchy based on ideals of nationalism and democracy — was not lost on Ireland.
"It's such an insane place we're in. Plays that are political like this — invariably, whenever they're put on, it feels like they're so applicable to this exact moment," she said. "When we started working on it, we were like, 'This is about right now.' Every time we did a reading, it was like, 'This has to be done right now….' But, especially, I really can't believe that when we went into tech, the government shutdown. It's unbelievable to me."
Referring to Antoinette's status in France as the "ultimate celebrity," Ireland described how the Queen was constantly on display, with people watching her dress and eat her meals. She was considered responsible for the nation's fashions and cultural guidelines, and her styles and trends were frequently exhibited. "I get very drawn to the stories of Miley and Amanda Bynes and Britney and always a new kind of very young girl that occupies a huge space in our kind of collective cultural brain as they're ascending," Ireland said. "They're just getting pushed so fast, and whether they're doing it themselves, it's very appealing. These young girls get pushed really far, and they're along for the ride, and suddenly we have to just eat them. We devour them whole.
"I mean, Justin Bieber gets treated like an idiot, and it's sort of like, 'Oh, that bonehead.' But it's not with the kind of blood lust and relish that a young woman is devoured with," she added. "It's really upsetting. I worry about these girls."
Throughout Adjmi's play, the audience witnesses Antoinette maturing from a teenage girl to a young woman struggling to survive. "She really only became a queen once she was put in prison," Ireland commented, "and she really only became a mother once her kids were taken from her. She didn't know how to do these things. She really only finds her power once it's taken away. You do feel her finally become a queen and finally find her power and her voice and become a good wife and good mother and understand what those relationships are when they're taken away from her."
Marie Antoinette is performed at Soho Rep through Nov. 24. Visit SohoRep.org.