Edinburgh Fringe 2019
The New Victorians
Venue: Pleasance Dome
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
MARA is the debut theatre piece of Maltese songwriting sisters Philippa and Bettina Cassar, known as The New Victorians.
It tells the stories of women in history who have stood or spoken up to make a difference – stories not necessarily told for the first time, but told in a new way through ensemble physical performance and electronic music.
There are a number of interwoven narratives in MARA.
We learn about the family of German watchmakers who took great risks to hide Jews from the Gestapo and even to steal Jewish babies from an orphanage.
We hear Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on women’s fiction, autonomy and Shakespeare’s forgotten sister (taken mostly from A Room of One’s Own).
We watch Emmeline Pankhurst campaign and protest, and hear her persuade the composer Ethel Smyth to join the movement, making her own personal sacrifices to do so. There are snippets of Smyth’s music for The March of The Women, which became the suffragette’s rallying song.
We see Helen Keller (with her teacher Anne Sullivan) battle against deafness and blindness to find a way to communicate.
All of these determined women have made a difference, whether through deeds or words. A little more narrative connection between the different stories would perhaps add to their power.
The ensemble (Ilenia Gatt, Kay Lee Micallef, Maxine Aquilina, Michela Farrugia, Stephanie Bonnici, Julienne Restall, Tina Rizzo and Sandie von Brockdorff) move with a powerful and diverse physicality. MARA is a highly visual production, and beautifully choreographed with some wonderful set pieces; yet this beauty doesn’t distract from the fierce anger it often expresses. This is a yell for women’s voices to be heard.
The piece is held together with contemporary music (primarily keyboard and percussion) played and manipulated by the Cassars, and there is excellent use of pre-recorded voices.
The music includes a number of repeated refrains such as ‘the vows we make as children’ and ‘don’t give up; we’re almost there’. In the heady mix of live dialogue, recorded words, music (both traditional and modern) and some frenetic choreography, this sometimes feels like one element too many, and the phrases unnecessarily telling. Were the storytelling on stage allowed to speak more for itself, this piece would be stronger still.
Elsewhere, MARA has played to sold out houses, so it is a great shame that in the huge King Dome there were only 13 people in the audience on the day I saw it.
MARA is at the Pleasance Dome at 14.00 until 26 August.