Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Playwright and performer Erin Layton tells the story of the Irish workhouses. Transitioning between post war and modern day (1998) Dublin, Magdalen explores the long-forgotten lives of the women and girls sent to seek redemption.
Tucked away round the corner, down the stairs and under the bridge, quite literally in the Vault lies a hidden treasure. I don’t usually talk about the venue but this is such a perfect metaphor for the story which unfolds in Magdalen, an absolutely breath-taking, gut-wrenching, masterwork of a solo show, exploring the secrets behind the Magdalen nuns and the Irish workhouses, where women and girls were promised redemption from their sins of the flesh but were delivered not from evil, but from joy, family and in many cases, life itself.
With chameleon-like adeptness, actress Erin Layton takes on the herculean task of embodying eight different characters, spanning in age from five to fifty. Ms. Layton’s portrayals are rich with history, fully realized, and her physical transformations are a masterclass in acting, nuanced and complete but never edging too close to the cliffs of caricature.
Seamlessly shifting between 1948 and 1998, the play, also written by Ms. Layton is beautiful, funny and heart-breaking, painstakingly researched and haunting.
With a name like Uncompromising Artistry Productions, one sets the bar very high and Magdalen truly delivers on its promise. Director Julie Kline’s raw, bare bones staging, and elegant transitions effortlessly transport us to post war Dublin, through the tenements, the streets and the workhouses. Ideal in its simplicity, the set design by Cat Tate Starmer, nothing more than a chair, a clothes line and a few bits of linen give just enough atmosphere to let the viewers’ imaginations run rampant and the space itself feels like the perfect setting, tucked away in an aging brick building under the arches, with an ever present yet nuanced atmospheric soundscape leaving the audience wondering if they shall have their food refused or knuckles rattled.
One of the aspects which takes this show from simply sublime into groundbreaking is the all-female production staff, not completely unique to Fringe or even to theatre but far too infrequent not to be noteworthy, particularly given that the female landscape of theatre in America, from which playwright and performer Erin Layton hails, is unquestioningly male, a trend which is changing at a woefully glacial pace. One need only look at the painfully masculine Oscars or the recent upset at the 2015 Tony awards which saw women take home honors in directing, scenic design for the beautiful British import The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, even book and composer for Fun Home (the first time in this category). In the history of the Tonys only nine women have ever won in the category of directing, which as it happens is eight more than have won an Oscar. A recent article in the Guardian talked about the continued marginalization of female playwrights. Though this production in its absolute perfection may not have moved the art form of solo theatre to a new level, this company, with its extraordinarily high standards in every aspect and detail from direction to scenic and lighting design, sound design, costume design, stage management and technical board operator, all completed by exemplary masters in their fields should be lauded for utilizing the amazing talents of women theatre professionals, not just performers but technicians and designers as well to give voice to the women of Magdalen, to honor their stories and their memory and to change the landscape of theatre in America and abroad.
Every aspect of the show, every detail was clearly thought through. It is not lost on this reviewer, even the choice of venue, “Paradise in the Vault”, paradise and redemption promised, a story so horrible it has only recently come to light, locked away in the vault of memory for all those who suffered at the hands of the “well-meaning”. It is rare that I use the cliché speechless, but in this case it is accurate. I was so moved by the mastery, the haunting beauty and the tragedy of what I saw on that stage, it was a good while before I could speak of what I’d just witnessed. Much like the girls of the Magdalen nuns, I was rendered silent. Take the trip down the staircase, under the arches, into the vault and experience the uncompromising artistry of Magdalen.