Tag Archives: Olivia Williams

Marys Seacole – Donmar Warehouse

Marys Seacole - Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s last production dealt with the causes and consequences of male violence, the rhetoric and celebrated gung-ho spirit that takes men to war – legitimate or otherwise – charismatic leadership and the destruction of the male body. Henry V is a play filled with ambiguity, men die on the battlefield, they die in between, they are soldiers, they are civilians, they are noblemen and paupers, prisoners, spies and thieves. And Henry may walk away with another crown and a bargain princess with whom to start a dynasty, but someone has to pick up the pieces, to care for the wounded and dying when the King’s glory leaves them with shattered limbs, infections and survivor’s guilt. A biographical drama about Mary Seacole seems like a fitting follow-up.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play Marys Seacole is an entirely female affair, no male characters are present, implied or even speak, only the time-travelling idea of Mary, her ghostly mother, Mary’s daughter and another tri-generational white family that she helps in a twenty-first century hospital setting. And while Sibblies Drury creates an overarching structure in which the story of the original Mary is played out from her early days in Kingston to the conflict zone of Crimea, the deliberate ‘s’ to pluralise the protagonist takes a long lens perspective on the role of female carers across two centuries and the gendered biological structures that continue to constrain women.

But Marys Seacole is a tough watch, an abstract style and disjointed scenes make it difficult to invest in what are archetypes rather than characters performing in what often feels like a chaotic assemblage of disconnected activities. It opens with Mary introducing her story, emphasising her determination and success as a woman who escaped conventionality to establish her own business and defied military and nursing authorities by arriving close to the battlefield with her team. Across the 1 hour and 45-minute running time, these elements are dramatised and distributed through the show like a backbone, (largely) retaining their period drama aesthetic to complete her physical and character journey from her homeland to a wider acceptance abroad.

From this, Sibblies Drury hangs another more nebulous dramatic device, using snippets drawn from scenarios involving versions of Mary and her daughter in different contemporary times and places. First we see her providing palliative care to a disorientated elderly woman in what we assume is an NHS hospital or facility and being chastised by the woman’s middle-aged daughter and granddaughter. Later, she sits on a park bench in the USA where mothers with babies in prams stop momentarily, ignoring Mary while one conducts brash phone conversations with a pharmacist and friend, while another complains about her loneliness. In a final scenario, Mary is running a trauma drill for new nurses, trying to heard a group of actors into performing their various roles in the aftermath of a terrorist incident.

They are connected by the cast performing similar character types and by the themes of motherhood and caregiving. There are also dialogue links between these situations with particular phrases uttered in earlier scenes returning later as individuals demand care, compassion or understanding, building to a frenzy of experience as Mary’s time in the Crimea becomes somehow bound-up with all of the people she has met and been throughout the play. And as the walls of time give way, allowing these shadows to bleed into her era and pick through the rubble, they overwhelm her with their demands for help.

And through this, Sibblies Drury weaves a broken connection with Mary’s ghostly mother, a lurking, spiritual presence that is always so strong in Carribean identity, who silently moves through the action, perhaps a yardstick for Mary to test her achievements against or a reminder that however far she travels she remains a Kingston woman. A lengthy monologue from this maternal ghost in the final scene speaks to these ideas, something of the shame Mary felt or disconnection from a parent who sent her away to care for a local white woman, but simultaneously reminding our heroine and all the Marys like her that their nursing efforts are in vain. There are nods to the government’s Windrush generation deportation plans to insist they will never be truly accepted and certainly never thanked for their work in the current NHS or contribution to wider social development in the last 70-years.

Sibblies Drury is telling an individual and a universal story at the same time, and there are powerful statements interwoven here, but together the seeming randomness of these various scenarios puzzles more than they explain or converge. The ideas are clear and the performative structures Sibblies Drury employs to tease out these concepts are certainly arresting, yet their overall meaning feels hazy. They are not quite straightforwardly dramatic yet also not impressionistic or representative enough to be either personally or politically pointed. The result is a piece that feels quite consciously stagey, keeping the audience on the outside of the drama and the emotive concerns it tries to address.

It is possible to see the influence of Carly Churchill and Sarah Kane in Sibblies Drury’s play, the combination of abrupt, anti-realist settings, the compression of time and historical figures into a single space as well as the interest in gender roles, motherhood and even the anthological style link to these two powerhouse political writers. Yet Marys Seacole doesn’t find quite enough strength in its connections, the joins between the various situations not yet strong enough to either grab the audience or push them to a place of discomfort where new thinking is possible. Instead, it feels as though most of the pieces are there but they just don’t fit together.

In staging Marys Seacole, Nadia Latif implies a simple but clinical medical field tent in a drab scrubs-green that sits somewhere between khaki and mint. Designed by Tom Scutt, there are two layers to the stage, front and back, divided by a strip of curtain with large Velcro pockets that double as storage rooms and sanitation facilities. Props are minimal which allows the story to travel relatively easily though time but there is no particular purity about period setting so anachronistic clothing or items (such as a nineteenth-century woman in trainers) appear throughout, although whether that is a deliberate statement to reinforce the fluidity of eras or a practical shortcut for costume changes is unclear.

There is however a powerful use of costume early on as the Victorian Mary delivering her opening biographical monologue is disrobed piecemeal by her daughter, removing the restrictive bodice and full skirt to reveal a modern nurses uniform. As a piece of identity performance, it is a fascinating moment, smartly easing our way into the next scene while simultaneously giving the audience a visual reference point for the core themes of Marys Seacole, as the narrative moves through and applies across time. And one of the production’s biggest successes is the way in which Scutt has represented changes in practice, dress and the management of conflict medicine through the design choices and reveals.

A contemporary hospital bed becomes an important and ingenious symbol of the Marys caregiving status. Initially used in the family scene in its original form, the bed transforms into a flat table with bench seating for Mary’s Kingston hotel and, later, into a park bench for the American moms encounter. Yet, there is inconsistency in how props are changed or moved within the production, sometimes actors bringing on their own items in relevant costume while the bed is repositioned and reformed by very visible stage managers in jarring modern black outfits and headsets, a necessity perhaps but it further breaks the illusion of the play and, like the undecided degree of abstract in the piece itself, it’s not clear what effect Latif is aiming for. There isn’t quite enough of this alienation technique to feel deliberate and if it isn’t then it just makes it even harder to maintain the spell during scene changes.

The production builds to a final confrontational scene that also tries to be symbolic and realistic at the same time. Finally, at the culmination of Mary’s story, there is some comedy in the brusque exchanges with a seemingly heartless and condescendingly competitive Florence Nightingale, but the men they tend are obvious dummies scattered chaotically around the stage, their torsos dressed in military jackets, trailing crepe paper streamers suggesting intestinal and other matter. Into this interaction between real people comes the people and phrases from other eras, holding plastic baby dolls – absurdist theatre is nothing without plastic baby dolls – and rifling through the debris. Visually, it’s a solid representation of the kind of battlefield carnage that those like Henry V would have caused but it has none of the visceral impact of Max Webster’s previous production, despite using some of the same soil. What we get instead, as in other parts of Marys Seacole, is powerful stage pictures but little translation of their meaning.

The performances are very good with a small ensemble cast of just six performers led by Kayla Meikle as the Marys. She is commanding from the first, delivering a rousing insistence of her worth, certain of her agency and importance, refusing to listen to the objections of others and pursuing her own course. Meikle explores some of the consequences of that determination in the final scene, responding to the maternal ghost’s warning of incipient racism, disinterest and betrayal, allowing her characterisation to crumble as the demanding world claws at her.

Meikle is supported by Llewella Gideon as that spirit who also delivers an final intense speech with bitterness and resignation, making the most of her only chance to speak. Olivia Williams is best as a haughty Florence Nightingale but is also given a harassed mother and simpering tourist in Kingston while Deja J. Bowens, Esther Smith and Susan Woolridge complete the cast as a series of mother and daughter figures at different stages of life, in various times and countries. They do a lot with a small ensemble, changing scenes rapidly to keep this relatively short show moving quickly even if very little of it makes sense.

Like the award-winning Fairview before it (staged at the Young Vic), Marys Seacole will certainly divide audiences with its sprawling approach and indecisive tone. It is certainly interesting to see a new play that tries to place a historical figure in a broader context of caregiving and racial injustice, particularly one devised and presented by a predominantly female creative team. But although Sibblies Drury’s play has lots of things to say and some interesting ways to say them, it can’t quite decide what it wants to be, leaving the audience equally baffled.

Marys Seacole is at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

15 Heroines – Jermyn Street Theatre

15 Heroines - Jermyn Street Theatre by Marc Brenner

Being a woman in Greek Mythology isn’t easy and for the most part they sit on the sidelines, forgotten sideshows to what are predominantly male narratives of war, conquest and feats of daring. Where women do feature, they are mere prizes to be won, abandoned wives, jilted lovers and objects to be admired or possessed whereas female-led tales tend to have a central character who is mad, a dangerous child-killer or has an unhealthy obsessions with their male relatives. Ovid’s collections of letters entitled Heroines puts these women centre stage, and although many focus on the absent male presence to whom they are addressed, they question the grand stories of honour, glory and heroism.

The small Jermyn Street Theatre was one of the first to respond to this summer’s lockdown, recognising instantly the power and possibility of digital theatre in the subsequent months. Their latest project 15 Heroines was announced some months ago, challenging a number of female playwrights to rewrite Ovid’s stories for the modern day and performed as standalone monologues by a female cast of well-known and rising stars. Filmed just before the second lockdown and streamed in repertory last week, these three collections of five plays – subtitled War, Labyrinth and Desert – are a triumph of ingenuity and responsiveness, drawing parallels with concepts of crisis, the everyday reality of living through and beyond them, and ensuring that in a changing theatrical landscape, some of the first voices we hear are female.

There is a tonal commonality across the three anthologies filmed entirely on the small Jermyn Street stage but eschewing any reference to the theatre in the visual presentation of these works. And while naturally such a major undertaking means there is variability in the success of the pieces, together they have a youthful energy, reflecting the all-too-often overlooked power and importance of female perspectives amongst the male posturing of classical tales. Even when they are pining for their absent lovers, in many cases we feel an equality in these partnerships; their men may be fighting wars that no one much believes in, but these women are barely impressed and certainly determined to be heard.

Each anthology premiered to an audience of 250-300 – impressive for a theatre with a maximum capacity of 70 – each focused on five different but connected women affected by the decisions of their partner. The first examines the consequences of the love affair between Helen and Paris, and the ensuing decade-long battle between the Trojans and the Spartans. Pitched at different periods during these years, War offers several new angles on a seemingly well-known story as the consequences of abandonment, dynastic inter-marriage and loyalty test the glory narrative of men fighting for honour – something that Briseis notes men are born with but women must earn with their chastity and good behaviour.

The strongest of the three collections Labyrinth is framed by the stories of Theseus and Jason, heroic men on quests to defeat monsters and bring glory to their people. Instead, they leave a trail of female destruction in their wake, one which these playwrights argue is visited back on them. The Desert has a looser thematic connection between the women featured but focuses on tales of revenge, empowerment and decision-making that takes the characters in new directions.

Rewriting Women’s Stories

Looking across the three collections, the segments are at their best when they entirely rethink as well as modernise the role of each character, transitioning to a position of strength rather than the passivity afforded them by myths and legends, even when their narratives and purpose has been shaped by the men around them. Abi Zakarian is one of the most successful, putting a very different spin on the life of Achilles’s wife who, won as part of the spoils of war, has only the only true sense of agency in the first collection of monologues. Brilliantly performed by Jemima Rooper, Briseis is sharp, savvy and more than a match for anyone who crosses her path and Zakarian’s text changes pace confidently with elements of comic excess that unexpectedly evolve into something a little more savage in the surprising but delicious conclusion.

We see this also in Bryony Lavery’s reimagining of the deserted Ariadne seduced by Theseus after slaying her Minotaur brother and left to wander alone on Naxos. Entitled String and included in the Labyrinth collection, alhough scorned, it is Ariadne’s brilliant mind, her scientific reason and rationality that dominate a story in which Theseus becomes a minor blip in an otherwise educated and full life. Performed by Patsy Ferran, Ariadne comes alive in this 20-minute piece, given emotional depth and a wry humour that Ferran inhabits entirely while the build-up to the final moment of female strength is grippingly played.

Also from Labyrinth, Samantha Ellis’s retelling of Phyllis’s abandonment by Theseus’s son Demophon is one of the smartest and most atmospheric monologues in the programme. And while this is a fairly straightforward rage against abandonment trajectory, Ellis gives depth and purpose to Phyllis’s experience. Staged as a dramatic and gothic woodland scene, Nathalie Armin imbues the character with a force of personality that turns the story upside down, showing that Phyllis is not merely another tragic woman who can’t live without a man, but that Demophon has foolishly messed with the wrong one. Like Ariadne, this woman is going to have the final say. Taken out of ordinary rooms and the recognisable locations of other stories and placed in a mystical place of possible witchcraft and spirits, I’m Still Burning is one of the most powerful pieces in the three anthologies.

Desert also offers up some smart twists on the original tale, placing Rosalind Eleazar’s Dido in a different light as the woman who built a city from nothing and makes a sound-minded decision to end her life – rather life Cleopatra – following the departure of Aeneas, rather than a suicide hastened by pining loss. Likewise, April De Angelis’s reworking of Hercules’s partner Deianaria as a scorned footballer’s wife who exacts a terrible revenge on her cheating husband. By recasting the hero’s labours as soccer achievements and a pivotal Strictly appearance, performer Indra Ové exposes the unsavoury underbelly of celebrity and the hollow reality of the monied lifestyle.

A complete scenario reset also offers contemporary insight and reflection, for Isley Lynn who intriguingly places her Canace (Eleanor Tomlinson) on a chat show in which the audience only hears one side of the conversation. If unfamiliar with the story, over the course of 15-minutes we slowly piece together the facts of a grand romance gone badly wrong as the outside world comes crashing it. Intriguing too is Desert’s concluding piece by Lorna French about Sappho whose quiet start explodes into a conversation about Windrush, race and betrayal that makes Britain itself the crushing lover.

Wailing and Waiting

Some of the writers have done less to reorientate their characters, and while settings or eras have been updated, they remain entirely defined by the men who have left them – even when more interesting possibilities present themselves. In Know I Should Have by Natalie Haynes (Labyrinth), Hypsipyle becomes another bitter, wine-drinking victim when Jason abandons her to seek the Golden Fleece and falls for Medea. Olivia Williams is very credible as the crossed Queen, but on an island filled with women who have slain their dishonest menfolk, why is this tale of marital abandonment the one Haynes wants to tell – a powerful monarch of female warriors reduced to a Bridget Jones parody with a side of rage.

Lettie Precious has the same problem with Oenone in War, bemoaning the departure of Paris in such heightened and desperate terms that the audience just wants her to pull herself together. The fascinating tones of racism and its physical manifestation in the body are overwhelmed by the debased pleading. Likewise the story of Penelope in War, though amusingly played by Gemma Whelan, becomes that of just a nice middle class wife waiting interminably for news of Ulysses return in Hannah Khalil’s interpretation in which Penelope sends nagging text messages while being entirely defined by her man.

None of these approaches moves very far from Ovid or the two millenia of dismissal heaped on these women already. Only Charlotte Jones gets the balance right with Laodamia’s tale, a piece that borders on the heightened comedy of reality TV to present the fearful wife of Protesilaus who goes to war on behalf of Menelaus. Laodamia (Sophia Eleni) may be a wailing woman wanting her man to return but her story has more contemporary resonance, exploring concerns about joining fights that are not their own, her own reflections on Helen’s supposed allure and the underlying pain felt by military wives who fear the worst.

Failing Masculinity

One notable theme across all fifteen stories, however, is the common failings of masculinity and while battles and concepts of honour have been celebrated for two thousand years, these women offer an alternative perspective. In fact, the male characters collectively referred to in absentia are uniformly feckless, cheating, disloyal, selfish and unnecessarily aggressive, prizing conflict and its spoils far beyond anything truly meaningful with the women who care for them.

In War, the eagerness with which the various male leaders flock to Menelaus’s side is treated with disdain by the wives, a foolish decade-long fight over nothing (to them). But it engenders a series of terrible deeds, women like Briseis won as trophies and then despoiled, Menelaus and Helen’s own daughter Hermoine (written by Sabrina Mahfouz) sold in marriage and raped by her husband for ancestral gain while Paris, so often represented as the ardent and impassioned lover, is shown cuckolding women long before he lays claim to Helen.

The notion of men as serial seducers, not to be trusted burns through Labyrinth as several of the protagonists fall for Theseus, his son or Jason, abandoning all reason and their virginity before being summarily replaced by a younger or more attractive alternative partner. The picture of reckless and careless conquerors this creates is not so much honourable as despicable when each man heads off on further quests with promises to write and return. History, written by men, has pitched these characters as heroes and Gods, but across 15 Heroines a new possibility emerges in which these breakers of oaths fall foul of their all-too-human vices.

In coordinating fifteen playwrights, characters and performers Jermyn Street Theatre have successfully completed their own Herculean labours to deliver this fascinating anthology. Across three beautifully staged and filmed collections each lasting around 80-minutes, 15 Heroines is an impressive and energised reworking of Greek myth that leaves the audience keen to find out more about each of these women and their remarkable lives.

15 Heroines was streamed in repertory by Jermyn Street Theatre from 9-14 November and will be available again from 20-22 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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