Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Full, furious flow in the face of grim world at war


Graeae Theatre , Soho Theatre , April-05-02
A STRANGE sight hits you as you enter the Soho Theatre. In front of a screen advertising a showing of The Trojan Women are three vast, silvery, ballgowns out of which peer three female heads. Is Kaite O’Reilly, author of Peeling, about to rip off Beckett’s Play, throughout which the characters are trapped in funeral urns? Well, what follows sometimes has the old Irishman’s stark power; but no, that’s not it.

The heads belong to three members of Graeae, which (as the programme says) is “Britain’s leading theatre company of people with physical and sensory impairments”. Caroline Parker is deaf, though you wouldn’t guess it from her flawless articulacy and unerring accuracy with cues. Lisa Hammond has a majestic head and an ungrown body. Sophie Partridge, when she emerges from that engulfing dress, turns out to be a human doll in an electric wheelchair.

I wouldn’t labour this if it weren’t relevant to a remarkably elaborate, imaginative and hard-hitting piece. These young women are alternately disabled people; actresses wondering if they or some computer-shrunk versions of Penelope Cruz will land the plum parts in the next horror film; the chorus in an updated version of The Trojan Women; and extras watching conventional performers stage Euripides’s grim attack on war. Often the lines between these roles blur, and they seem to be all of them at once.

If that sounds tricksy, they know it, jokily accusing themselves of being “post-modern” and the like. But the complexity serves a purpose, since O’Reilly’s capsule intention is to ask tough questions about a world where children are regularly slaughtered, aborted because of rogue genes, abused, rejected, sterilised, made to feel they shouldn’t have been born. And if that sounds self-pitying, the impression given by these three women is the very opposite: humorous, sardonic, disbelieving, outraged, foul-mouthed, quarrelsome, defiant. Why, I can now do the f-word in sign-language.

Their dialogue wanders from the anecdotal — what about that time when they were trapped backstage during a fire scare while playing insects in Kafka’s Metamorphosis in Watford? — to the upsetting. Hammond’s fierce Beaty recalls her vindictive joy when she buried the guilt-mongering mother who hadn’t expected her to live beyond 20. The same character lapses into bitter silence after describing how she was cajoled into giving away her baby. But we’re never allowed to forget for long that Euripides’s Trojan War is in effect continuing to this day.

Violent imagery of planes, guns, bodies on the back-screen emphasises this, but not as effectively as O’Reilly’s dialogue, which sometimes has the punch and spareness of the late Sarah Kane’s suicide-play, 4:48 Psychosis. “Rape as a war tactic, babies’ heads split open like conkers,” the cast laments. “Teeth bared, eyes rolled back, mama’s precious, future joy, gone forever,” they add. “Women, children, war,” they repeat.

The piece could, I suppose, be accused of equating shootings in Bosnian football stadiums, hangings in central Africa, and the other contemporary atrocities it evokes, with the pains of being British and disabled. But that’s far from the effect when these women, their dresses now turned blood red, are in full, furious flow. “I should have let you die in the womb rather than let you die by suicide bomb in a crowded discotheque”: a pretty pointed cry from the Middle East now, don’t you think?

Reviewed by: Benedict Nightingale (The Times)

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