Brighton Fringe 2023
God! Growing up is so difficult!
Especially at that awful time just at the onset of puberty, when your body’s changing; and the hormones are altering your perception of yourself and the people around you; and it’s difficult to talk to your mother; and you get bullied by people at school; and nobody – but nobody – understands you.
‘Persephone’ is the story of a young woman who’s stuck in just that situation. It takes five actors to bring her tale to life on the Rotunda stage – Persephone herself, two other girls she’s at school with, a mysterious figure from her dreams, and Persephone’s mother. None of the others are given names, but I’m going to call her mother Demi – for reasons which should become apparent …
It starts with hair. Hair growing on Persephone’s body, which the bitchy bullies at the bus stop tease her about – “Hairy legs – haven’t you got hot water at home to shave ’em?”. Nasty girls, not above slapping their victim and pulling her hair. You know you’re watching great acting when you really believe in the characters – and I hated these harridans! They know that’s she’s from a one-parent family – Demi’s a single mum – and the bullies imply that the family’s poor, and dirty.
Weight, too. She has memories of stuffing her face with cake as a child, being admonished for it – “Don’t Eat!!”- and now she feels herself to be heavy. But when she gets home, her mother tells her she’s too thin, that she’s not eating enough. Persephone’s not happy with how her body looks, and there’s possibly a touch of anorexia going on here.
And the worst thing is that she can’t seem to talk about any of this with her mother. Demi seems to be permanently angry – doing the ironing and shaving her own legs while telling the girl to stop moaning and go to bed. All her actions are abrupt, and all her speech is snappy and harsh. Persephone asks her mother why home is so bleak – “We used to laugh, what happened?” But the only response from Demi is – “GO TO BED!!”
There’s sex, too, of course. Those hormones are working, and Persephone’s body knows it needs something, but it’s not clear just what – or with whom. The play is structured a bit like a Cubist painting, and Abi Smith’s very confident direction lets us see the action from different viewpoints – sometimes from inside Persephone’s memory; sometimes within her dreams. Sometimes from the perspective of other people – in one bit she’s getting ready for school, brushing her teeth, and the two other girls are doing it alongside her. It’s perhaps significant that the painter Georges Braque, who founded the Cubist movement along with Picasso, produced a whole series of images of the goddess.
Because that’s what Persephone is, in Greek mythology. She’s the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the cornfield, who was responsible for the fertile abundance of summer. Demeter had no husband – he’d been struck dead with a thunderbolt by Zeus – which explains Demi’s status as a single mum, and probably a lot of her anger as well.
Soon we enter Persephone’s dreams, where she meets a mysterious, genderless figure, dressed all in black – a slim body, with hair cut to a length that could suit either sex.
With this person she suddenly feels calmer, and lighter, and more content. “Are you a boy or a girl?” she asks. “A bit of both” comes the reply. And later – “Do you want to come with me? … even though you don’t know where I’ll take you.” Persephone nods. It’s all within her dream, but Persephone is working through her sexuality. She hugs and kisses the mysterious figure, murmuring lasciviously about all the touchy, slurpy things she’d like them to do to one another. And it works – Persephone’s self-image improves, she feels more confident, stronger, lighter. She starts to have the self-confidence to deal with her bullies.
It’s not just in her dream, either. In her waking life, Persephone’s mother is relieved, remarking that her daughter is looking healthier, putting on weight. “You look happy” says Demi, “I thought you were dead. I went to Hell and back for you!”
“I’ve found a place to be” Persephone tells her mother. “I’ve found a … person, to be with. I’ll go there – but I’ll be back.”
This is where the play and the mythology intercut so cleverly. Persephone had been abducted by Hades, the king of the Underworld, to become his wife. Demeter was outraged, and threatened to withhold the fertility and warmth of Summer, unless Persephone was given back to her. The demand worked, and Hades was forced to return the girl to the Upper World – on the understanding that she’d taken no nourishment while in Hades’ kingdom. But there was one snag – although Persephone had vowed to take no Underworld food, she’d nibbled on a few pomegranate seeds as she was leaving.
As a result of that oversight, a deal was struck – that Persephone would remain above ground for nine months of the year, and spend three months in the Underworld with Hades. Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter during this time, and the Upper world experiences the season of Winter.
The play’s writers – Ami Sayers, Mollie Semple and Abi Smith – have melded an ancient myth with modern sexuality and relationships. The fertility theme was constantly on display – while Persephone and her dream lover sat on a table talking and touching, the actors playing the other schoolgirls wound strands of flowers and foliage round the table-legs. And they’ve given us a clue, too, by using the pomegranate image on the show’s poster …
There’s more. The writers know a lot about human nature, and Demi’s constant angry state is partly explained by the loss (however that occurred) of her husband. But it’s also about her own life, and growing old, and the demands children make on their parents, as the torch is passed from one generation to the next.
“I was beautiful!” Demi shouts at her daughter. “You took all I have – you’ve sucked everything out of me.” “I did it all for you, but no-one looks at me now. The world will forget me …”
The Gods can be cruel, and self-centred – but then so is life itself …