The Ash Girl

Jul 30, 2017

Timberlake Wertenbaker; photo by Linda Nylind for The Guardian.

This is not your ordinary Cinderella story. The lead character in The Ash Girl, a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is called Ashgirl, appropriately enough. Besides her stepsisters and stepmother (simply called “Mother”), the Seven Deadly Sins are part of the cast with names such as Slothworm, Gluttontoad, Pridefly, Sadness, and Greedmonkey. Other participants are Otter, Mouse, Owl, and Man in Forest. And, let’s not forget a “melancholy” prince.

Wertenbaker “crafts a feminist twist on the familiar story (of Cinderella) that uses humor and emotion to explore dysfunctional family relationships, social pressure, and the struggle for human connection.”

The British Council on literature writes:

In most of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s plays there are two competing forces: a generous utopian impulse and a strong satirical drive. (T)he word ‘hope’ makes an appearance in virtually all Wertenbaker’s plays, and it is this quality that she admires so much in Sophocles in whom she also finds ‘tremendous despair’. 

Her feminist interest in non-conforming women also finds expression in her plays based in myth or fairytale: The Love of the Nightingale (1989), Dianeira and The Ash Girl.… The Ash Girl, a new version of Cinderella, retains the happy ending of the original but also shows some sympathy for Cinderella’s stepmother and half-sisters, who are the victims of an idealised femininity.


Timberlake Wertenbaker.


Finally, it is difficult to read or see Timberlake Wertenbaker’s plays without registering how cosmopolitan her characters are. Even though her protagonists are often English, her plays are also peopled by Algerians, Romanians, Greeks, Turks, Macedonians, Somalians, Bosnians, Indians, Americans, Sri Lankans. This is no superficial attempt to bring diversity to the stage, nor is it simply a reflection of Wertenbaker’s own complicated background and travels. It is part and parcel of her abiding concern with the displacement of peoples and the shifting faultlines of cultural identity.
—”Timberlake Wertenbaker: Biography,” by Peter Buse, 2003,

Wertenbaker was born in America, raised in French Basque country, and has been working, teaching, and creating in America, Basque, and England (where she currently resides).

“Plays should reflect the world they’re in,” writes Wertenbaker in the Independent (2015). “You would have been excused in the past, having seen some plays, for thinking that the world is populated by white men. It’s changing—though not fast enough—and the more it changes, the better.”


Timberlake Wertenbaker; photo by Bronwen Sharp.


“What I love about her is that she does not indulge sentiment, though she is very emotional,” says Peter Hall, director of Galileo’s Daughter (London, 2004) in The Guardian. “She does not display wit in fireworks, though she is very witty. … Other people say she is cool and cold even, but I don’t find that. It is a very hot talent underneath those precise words.”

Following are some stills from the Caltech Players production of The Ash Girl, playing August 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, and 19.


Stepsisters Judith (Penelope Chan) and Ruth (Stephanie Booth) harangue The Ash Girl (Lydia Kivrak); photo by Manan Arya.


The Ash Girl:

“An ambitious play with hints of the Brothers Grim, medieval allegory and anthropomorphism…it has a quirky originality… [Ashgirl] is prey to self-doubt and is under the thumb of her stepmother, while her prince is an exiled Asian isolated and unhappy in his new country. Wertenbaker’s biggest innovation is to suggest that the forest en route to the palace is populated by an animalized version of the Seven Deadly Sins, which are out to destroy humanity. She even adds a further allegorical figure, Sadness, who tries to tempt Ashgirl towards death, and battles with the Fairy in the Mirror for her soul. The result is like a mix of C.S. Lewis and Sondheim’s Into the Woods: an eclectic fairy-tale anthology. Where Wertenbaker scores is in her eye for detail.”
The Guardian, London; sourced from


“Ash Girl’s true enemies are her own demons, such as Sadness (Maryam Ali, standing)”; photo by Manan Arya.


The stepsisters with Mother (Carol Cyr); photo by Manan Arya.


Miranda Stewart, director of Ash Girl at Caltech, “exuberantly blends fantasy and modern issues to create something funny, heartwarming, and truly unique.”


The Ash Girl
Firday-Sunday, Aug. 11, 12, 13; Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 17, 18, 19
All performances @ 8 p.m.
Caltech Alumni House, 345 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $10, general; $5, students
Ticket purchase at the door or online here
Ample free parking on Hill & Caltech Parking garage on Holliston, south of Del Mar
For more info, visit event Facebook page


Ash Girl and Prince Amir (Utkarsh Mital); photo by Manan Arya.


Relative to our U.S. history is Wertenbaker’s play…

Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden, which deals with the framing of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution by Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers. Workshopped at the RSC but then taken on and developed by Brigid Larmour, artistic director of the Watford Palace, the play explores a huge theme—the tension, throughout American history, between the ideal of freedom and the reality of racial division—with a vast cast of characters. And this expansiveness of narrative and characters is what Wertenbaker seeks to achieve in theatre.
—”Timberlake Wertenbaker: You Can’t Get a Straightforward History of America,” by Mark Lawson, February 7, 2015, The Guardian




Information sources:
Timberlake Wertenbaker: Biography,” by Peter Buse, 2003,
Timberlake Wertenbaker: I Got to Feel That Nobody Wanted Me,” by Vanessa Thorpe, April 29, 2017, The Guardian.
The Independent, February 8, 2015





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