Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Ursula

Theatre Film and TV Department, Aberystwyth University , TFTS Aberystwyth , December 4, 2004
Ursula by Theatre Film and TV Department, Aberystwyth University I’ve come to expect fine productions from David Rabey and his Drama students at Aberystwyth University but his direction of Howard Barker’s Ursula is work of remarkable accomplishment.

The play concerns Ursula a nun (played tempestuously and, so, grippingly with the ability to take us to the threshold of heartbreak by Vicki-Jayne Fergus) betrothed to Lucas a lord who lives in a castle overlooking an estuary. Under instruction from Placida, the Mother Superior (a brilliant, commanding, profoundly sexual Katherine Davies)she responds to the religious ideologue within herself and rejects Lucas in order to become a bride of Christ. Along with her companion nuns and the Mother they journey across the river to Lucas’s castle. Lucas (played by Daniel Price with appropriate understatement and wit), rejected, turns his attention elsewhere and finds in Placida herself a woman who is not an ideologue but a pragmatist – a woman of this world – and she takes Lucas for herself thus betraying the ideals she previously espoused and, of course, the nuns who hang on every word carried by her “voice”. Finally, Placida kills the other women an act, she comes to pragmatically see, of hope as she has preserved their virginity.

Art is rooted in the relationship between beauty and suffering. So is religion. But religion is the ideological account of this relationship – in the middle ages the two fused in the Art of the Renaissance. One of Barker’s urges as a writer is to separate ideology from Art and if I understand this correctly Barker resolves this conflict as tragedy and then presents tragedy as the highest form of dramatic art within which desire is reconciled with death. It seems to me that this play is about the arguments that drive his aesthetic and to fully understand the play you have to have some understanding of that aesthetic: the arguments for Art and Theatre that lie behind the playwright’s purpose. Then there’s what the play is about. The one – the aesthetic arguments has to be revealed through the other – what the play is about - in order to produce the work for an audience. There is no one better suited to do this than Rabey who is the recognised authority on Barker.

The play is subtitled “fear of the estuary”. The estuary is not just a place out of which one voyages to the future and hope, it’s a metaphor for the vagina. If Ursula could travel down the river of her interior past the gate of her virginity, she could journey to hope. But there’s a catch, Placida has told Ursula that ecstasy – the going outside of oneself - is false because it can only be achieved through Christ. So there is no liberation for Ursula (no response to Lucas’ observation that “death may be beckoned from her cunt”) instead her inner river becomes the Styx and this is precisely the site for the playing out of Barker’s Tragedy. In fact, the whole play is a metaphor for Ursula’s struggle with her womanhood and, by extension, every woman’s struggle – at least those she shares the convent with played as an ensemble with great commitment and unselfishness by Suzie Aldgate, Gemma Haycock, Leanne Parsons, Rachel Osborne, Sarah Meadows who brings an extra depth to the one de-flowered nun made mad by her experience, Kate Smith, Sarah Gray and Rachel Bibby without whose skills the whole piece may have seemed a nonsense. And then I must mention Heather Stevenson whose Leonora is delivered with the acting of a natural – her slight form simply dominated when on stage.

At the climax of this production there is an astonishing piece of theatre in which Ursula and the nuns are trolleyed on by the diabolical Simon Hodgson to be executed by their erstwhile Mother Superior. As they await their execution they sing a kind of magnificat, the singing of the cast soaring through the suffering they are portraying before dying with each death until only Ursula is the lone tragic voice before her own death. This singing, as with the earlier antiphon is sublime – a miracle worked by singing tutor Nick Jones. This denouement is utterly moving not just because in a few moments it captures the sorrow of great theatre but also because it echoes with all the horrors of the Iraq conflict and becomes a powerful play for our time.

The tragedy for Ursula is that while seeking to preserve her womanhood for Christ she condemns herself to die beside her own inner river while the Mother Superior becomes Barker himself, sword in hand, slaying the handmaiden of ideology.


Reviewed by: Dic Edwards

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