Fringe Online 2020
15 Heroines: 15 Monologues Adapted from Ovid
Jermyn Street Theatre
Genre: Adaptation, Classical and Shakespeare, Contemporary, Feminist Theatre, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Online Theatre, Poetry-Based Theatre, Short Plays, Solo Performance, Solo Play, Storytelling, Theatre, Tragedy, Translation
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre Online
Jermyn Street’s Tom Littler directs 15 actors in the 15 monologues adapted from Ovid by 15 authors. Directed variously by Tom Litttler, Adjoa Andoh and Cat Robey with Designers Louie Whitemore, Jessie MacKenzie, Emily Stuart and Sound Designers Max Pappenheim and Nicola Chang.
Creative Team: Lighting Johann Town, Projection Designer William Reynolds, Assistant Lighting Simisola Majekodunmi, Assistant Sound Alie Taie, Design Assistant Claire Nicolas. Assistant Directors Gabriella Bird, Khadifa Wong. Makeup Charla Daley. Available till November 14th. Then by request.
And this time it’s epic in another sense. After 72 actors over 12 hours and 24 Books of Homer’s The Odyssey, just recently in October, Jermyn Street’s Artistic Director Tom Littler has undertaken yet another odyssey.
It’s 15 monologues adapted from Ovid by 15 playwrights for 15 actors. They’re Ovid’s second volume, from 19 BC when he was all of 24. Women ambered to myth explode – with their classic intensity renewed. Unleashed by Ovid’s uncanny ear for feminine experience, these templates now kick with 21st century relevance beyond even Ovid’s imagining; with actors who bewail, laugh, howl and scratch eloquence from 15 superb scripts.
By the end you feel you’ve had a whole day in the theatre. It’s a stunning but exhilarating experience. Authors and actors translate their heroines to that lip of the terrible we’re just able to bear: utterly theatrical, live, dangerous, viscerally painful and political, sexy and savage. There seems virtually nothing not expressed here, unless it be present laughter, present happiness.
Grouped in fives lasting 80-83 minutes each, these performances are broadcast over a week then placed online. This means an immense confluence of talent orchestrated severally; the volume published by NHB on November 5th makes this clearly a premiere production. The full list can be read at the bottom of this review.
We start – as the Ian Rickson Uncle Vanya production did – with a tiny snippet of backstage preparation. This is a very different production to The Odyssey with filmic values throughout, pre-recorded, presented in a way that stands up anywhere.
You happily recognise particular styles of direction, why directors working with one or two designers (there’s three), or just one, have chosen their stories. Tom Littler encompasses epic and large with more than a smack of the contemporary in wit and detail. Cat Robey – who sometimes collaborates with Littler – enjoys the mythic and edgily strange, almost invoking the smokey lip of a god. Adjoa Andoh turns to slow-burn tragedy scoring an arc of defiance and grief. The 15 dramatists all respond to the pressure of a single author with elegant escapes or new twists, and the creatives confer a unity – or perhaps a unified triptych – of approaches. The acting’s uniformly more than fine, often very distinctive.
15 Heroines was rehearsed, performed and filmed live at Jermyn Street Theatre in socially distanced conditions with enhanced health and safety precautions.
Each piece was performed, filmed and cut live in a single take. Indeed the word ‘cut’ comes just before the applause at the end of each sequence, just so we know.
Everything’s lit consummately by Johanna Town.
Five women written into the stories of Theseus and Jason
Ariadne: String by Bryony Lavery, directed by Tom Littler starring Patsy Ferran
We’re given quite a lead-in textually to set the scene. A very contemporary Patsy Ferran rushes onto Naxos with an airline wheelie and a prod attached to red thread of wool; returned to her by Theseus whom she’d helped through the Labyninth to kill the Minotaur so no more sacrificial virgins of both sexes. But Theseus has abducted her – willingly – and fled. And the Minotaur is Ariadne’s brother.
The stage designed by Louie Whitemore and sound by Max Pappenheim is simple, a backdrop black too with a wavy-formed set of bronze incisions.
Patsy Ferran energizes a respect-stripped princess with a kooky range of expression. Ideally cast for this knowing problem-solver, Ferran curve-balls quirks of Ariadne we never suspected.
Full of zizzy ‘separation anxiety’ phrases. ‘you breathe in the air surrounding me you smell all the boats burning’ she says of not being able to return, now seduced and abandoned, ‘stringing me along’, riffing on her prop. Oh yes, string theory, discussed with Daedalus who built the maze before his flying adventure. And every string pun you can imagine. This uber-bright intellectual reft from home explodes stabbing her suitcase. Strikingly, Ariadne’s able to describe seeing her brother’s guts echoing the Labyrinth.
Ariadne is able to narrate Theseus’ future via a curse of forgetting. Ariadne means most holy. ‘A far-reaching mind’. Here’s no rescue by Bacchus, we’re left with a woman abandoned, hopeless, but able to fling her curse – like string theory and her sense of the fourth dimension. In less than 18 minutes – longer than the average – this is a work you want to see expand, Ferran reaches to more than even the compass she’s able to give here.
Phaedra: Pity the Monster, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Adjoa Andoh, starring Dona Croll
After Hippolyta dies Theseus marries Ariadne’s sister, Phaedra, older by now than Ariadne had been, famously falling for her stepson Hippolytus. In a gold dress bespeaking status, Dona Croll sits and moves about on Jessie Mackenzie’s set of a simple chair, backed by curtains and a grilled opening to her chamber (the previous backdrop peeping through as an exterior, quite deliberately), conjures monster-slaying Theseus. Unlike her sister this sister’s not enamoured of the older authoritarian Theseus. The monster though Phaedra suggests she herself, a mature woman is monster to desire a young man.
Croll fetching a shawl brilliantly squirms on an expressive disquisition against order and male authority. Her voice is drawn out to seduction, languorous and steely. Directing her remarks to the hunting-mad Hippolytus this Phaedra challenges him with Theseus’ alleged murder of his mother and abandonment of her sister as she flaunts and taunts her sexuality as a different courage to be essayed. Melted out. Who can resist? It’s around 13 minutes, ending on an invitation. ‘I will save you from the human.’
Phyllis: I’m Still Burning, by Samantha Ellis, directed by Cat Robey starring Nathalie Armin
In a dark-hazed version of the first backdrop, we’re treated to a less familiar story in 14 minutes. Theseus and Phaedra’s son Demophon shipwrecked was desired by the unmarried daughter of a king, who now ruled. Demophon has no trouble falling for a slightly older woman. Armin garbed in a beautiful headgear traces an arc of assertion sexual eagerness having never wanted a man being completely absorbed in a man’s promises. Armin’s traversal is an energized quickfire narration impassioned with sudden eddies. She’s lit and garbed as a witchy thing, and we find out why.
Phyllis moves from the personal to the political – urged to suicide she rejects, the women demonstrating against the men with hashtags, and then a meta-textual meditation on Ovid and Chaucer, women inscribed by men. Even Apollodorus’ admonitions to open a box – and we get an Ovidian transformation. And a curious twist. It’s a limber retelling using brief poetic intensity that Armin handles with flexibility modulated into stellar rage.
Hypsipyle: Knew I Should Have, by Natalie Haynes, directed by Tom Littler starring Olivia Williams
Hypsipyle is queen of Lemnos where the womenfolk have slain their menfolk. She’s a granddaughter of Bacchus the god, and beautiful which becomes ironic. Still Jason pops up, she marries him instead of killing him, who after two years rushes off to find the Golden Fleece Medea and all the infidelity that follows. We didn’t remember Hypsipyle did we?
Here Williams in contemporary dress emails Jase from her Mac on the table. So he’s got to Thessaly she’s found out, fine: a letter would be nice. We get a recension of the Jason narrative – its risible improbability deliciously sent up by Williams ‘bulls with bronze feet.. real bronze?’ And soldiers shooting up from sewn teeth? Just before she lunges into the grief of her knowing of Medea, a barbarian poisoner. Williams enacts as tragic a scena as her witty intro seems so knowing.
But it’s tempered by a ferocious knowingness, a shrewd sense of politics and tragically of Medea’s magic powers. Medea doesn’t even have to be pretty – Jason’s literally under her spell – and Medea will take credit. Williams consults her laptop rather as if she’s googled it. And cracks open a consolatory bottle. Well it’s hereditary. There’s a superb climax, with a prophetic curse feeding back into Lavery’s way with Ariadne; here entered on a laptop. Which of course covers the conclusion of that other story. At 18 minutes it’s one of the longest and bitterly compelling in Williams’ hands.
Medea: The Gift, by Juliet Gilkes Romero, directed by Adjoa Andoh starring Nadine Marshall
This most famous myth doesn’t settle for an oblique way in to tackle this endlessly retold narrative. Here in a small room and a bed clearly meant for children Nadine Marshall retells her humiliation fought off with a slap as her ‘bastards’ are ripped from her. Jason’s about to marry a pubescent girl, and fears Medea.
Juliet Gilkes Romero inevitably tells the backstory, all to Medea’s sister. You wonder if there’s been some cross-script consultation as Medea refers to herself as the barbarian princes, echoing Haynes, but it’s in Ovid. Far from bewitching Jason it sees goddess Hera has bewitched Medea into falling for Jason. There’s a compelling lighting of candles. And … police sirens. Like many retellings this one sees to exonerate Medea – her gift was not meant for the idiot bride. As the police close in, Medea, not the killer we’ve been accustomed to, has been trying to escape with her children. There’s again a twist.
Stories of the Trojan War
Laodamia: Her Own Private Love Island, by Charlotte Jones, directed by Cat Robey and Tom Littler starring Sophia Eleni
Laodima’s pining for her husband already, who’s set off for the Trojan War. She’s talking to him in a Laptop, in a demotic Newham-Greek-girl mode stuck on a Greek island, beautifully threshed against poetic anaphoras ‘the sails.. the sails..’ and vernacular. Helen fights dirty, she’s naked-wrestled with her, and ‘she’s broken the girl-code’ with Fuckboy. Jones reaches back to the language she rarely uses in for instance The Diva In Me.
Sophia Eleni traverses a heartbreaking round of a young woman pushing away accusations that she’s suicidal, brutally treated with a bucket of water: though admitting mental health issues, as she jokes reminisces and enacts at one point her passionate sexual desire. But most of all the harrowingly universal sense of a war widow. And of course we get the point. This really did just happen to women clutching Mac laptops.
Designed with a simple bed and that Mac laptop by Emily Stuart with Max Pappenheim’s sound envelope, it’s a monologue remarkable for its superbly wayward pitch of lyrical and vernacular, witty Greek Island good-time girl and wrenched premature widow gifted with the terrible prophesy that her new husband Protesilaus will be the first to die, being the first Greek soldier to set foot on Trojan land. Eleni is heartbreaking when heartbroken.
Oenone: The Cost of Red Wine, by Lettie Precious, directed by Adjoa Andosh. Starring Ann Ogbomo
So Paris too has had a lover before Helen, and he’s just popping back to pick up his belongings before prancing off with her. ‘Cock-hard ‘for light skin. This bitter soliloquy of race and sexual status is rendered in memorable flaying in Lettie Precious’ piece, where Ann Ogbomo delivers it with a poised stillness and often rapt measured delivery. This spacing out is concertina’d with terrific outbursts that shiver to a close.
This Helen has already borne mixed-race children whom Oenone has seen. She considers lightening her own skin. Exploring race, gender politics and sexuality – including sexual options – Oenone’s power is brought in a carefully orchestrated set of movements, interspersed with love-hate outbursts. She’s packing too.
Jessica McKenzie’s pyramid of packing boxes is sparse, and Nicola Chang’s whispering music is only present at the opening and close. Much is made of silences and pauses before explosions. Precious and Ogbomo make as much as they can of a simple desertion turned into polemics of male use and abandonment; struck through with lyrical and devastating relevance in 15 minutes.
Briseis: Perfect Myth Allegory, by Abi Zakarian, directed by Cat Robey starring Jemima Rooper
Briesis is the daughter of an ally of the Trojans. Captured, she’s offered as a concubine to Achilles but Agamemnon outranking him claims her.
Zakarian in Rooper’s bride-clad sassy heroine is having none of this. All siblings having bad names abbreviated ‘I went through childhood called a cheese’ you realise this is no victim. Relating her groomed childhood and rebellion from this parental sexualizing, we move from child-bride to young widow to a liberated young woman at uni enjoying beautiful men.
Emily Stuart’s design and sense of transformation is one of the most engaging uses of a set, augmented by Max Pappenheim’s brief envelope of sound.
This Bri is in command; gradually stripping her wedding dress to reveal pregnancy. She arranges a takeover after ten years from her female boss before embarking on another rematch with a lover. Yet her 14 sisters seem unreachable and as Rooper redresses she reveals a different self, someone who outwits her lovers as she outwitted her boss. There’s a delicious line ‘Maybe I’ll go to Paris next.’ Briesis is unrepentant, Rooper has more steely victory than Medea in her. And revealingly more than that.
Hermione: Will You?, by Sabrina Mahfouz, directed by Adjoa Andoh. Starring Rebekah Murrell
Hermione’s having none of it. Blindfolded and questioned by the authorities. Her father Menelaus has gone off in pursuit of her mother Helen who’s made off with Paris, when Hermione was nine. She’s promised to cousin Orestes but Menelaus later promises her via brother Agamemnon to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus when she’s 19.
Jessie McKenzie has designed a simple table with a shifting dark-green police-style backdrop with discreet sound by Nicola Chang that emits as other soundscapes, high-pitch at greatest tensions.
Sabrina Mahfouz. a poet as well as dramatist, knows how to pace a work that has to be related evidence. Rebekah Murrell’s measured fury has a steady beat – there’s little opportunity for direct address, blindfolded in front of policemen. You’d think. Of Orestes Hermione’s direct: ‘He was the only man I ever met/who said clitoris and meant it/.Hah! my knickers used to flood/before we’d even touched… We would have been good.’
Forced marriage in the upper classes is another matter. And the first royal imprisoned for rape? We’re moving to rape in marriage as ‘unstitching’. In the myth there’s some divine justice and happiness in store. Here Hermione ends on a defiant note demanding arrest.
Penelope: Watching the Grass Grow, by Hannah Khalil, directed by Tom Littler starring Gemma Whelan
Hannah Khalil’s Penelope has waved off her husband on an advertising bonding trip that seems to take forever and male neighbours are starting to mow her lawn without her permission. Apparently phones are confiscated but another man contacts his wife. Even their son gets emails of the glorious competitive victory. With tent pegs.
Gemma Whelan’s confident dressmaker is embarrassed at being shaken by this absence, even now frantically checks her phone. And washes the Egyptian cotton he loves. Daily. ‘This is not me.’ She’s Pen. Whelan runs a striking gamut of pleading, ironic can-do professional, relishing her parody of suitors and sudden turn to fury and grief.
Louie Whitemore’s realistic set is a trestle on which Pen’s making clothes and accidentally jabbing herself with a pin. She’s a virtual dressmaker in lockdown, with people lying about their waist measurements over zoom. So that’s Pen’s loom. Max Pappenheim’s sound is again a quietly clangorous buzziness at the edges.
The register here is lighter though, disarmingly so, suburban, where no tragedy’s really allowed. Khalil’s re-imagined this as less tragic personally (it’s bittersweet a happy ending normally) but surrounded it with the absence caused by covid: the worry of Pen’s having enjoyed being together in lockdown contrasted with an errant husband. Pen’s defiant tone, her actions suggest her returning husband might find a different Penelope.
Five women deserted – with stories to tell
Deianaria: The Striker, by April De Angelis, directed by Adjoa Andoh. Starring Indra Ove
Today’s a bit early for Retsina… but chilli oil? Fanatically loyal footballer’s wife is being dumped for a younger model. Indra Ove confides and sizzles in a slow winding burn.
Hercules isn’t the only striker and fighter. It’s not the passing shags like used condoms ‘it’s on the job’s description: footballer’s wife.’ And where did the newest squeeze meet Hercules? Strictly. Well it’s the season. ‘Hercules wins the greatest task of all’ – he’s lifted the glitterball.
Designed by Jessie MacKenzie there’s a simple drinks cabinet bottles and a chair. Composer/Sound Nicola Chang adds a sinister singing as with several of Chang’s sound envelopes.
‘What’s the point of a god unless he can be dragged in the mud.’ And Hercules seduced Deianaria when she was a schoolgirl of fifteen. Lovingly detailed, hypnotically delivered it’s a simple narrative of 12 minutes, punchy and ready-salted with adjectives. Sweet and sharp as caramel ice-cream downed with Retsina.
Dido: The Choice, by Stella Duffy, directed by Cat Robey. Starring Rosalind Eleazar
Rosalind Eleazar sits in a darkened space designed with classical confidence by Louie Whitemore with the menacing sound we’ve come to expect by now by Max Pappenheim. Rising from her chair she dons a little attire. Eleazar gives flesh and expression to this classically-conceived piece. Stella Duffy like nearly all the dramatists allows the original verse expression its line and end-stopping and Eleazar delivers it tragically straight.
At 14 she’s been married off to her uncle an old man, then widowed, everyone around her including her father – all killed by her brother. Dido escapes from Tyre to Carthage. Relating how she designed and built Carthage, this Dido points her backstory before Aeneas. And then the detail of her love and its famous conclusion over a deliberate arc of 16 minutes. It’s all about her choices, his, the alternative at each turn. Including that of stopping the suffering visited by the gods. Eleazar lays it down like foundation stones. And there is still Carthage.
Canace: A Good Story, by Isley Lynn, directed by Tom Littler and Cat Robey. Starring Eleanor Tomlinson
Eleanor Tomlinson’s Canace is daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. So she’s appearing on a TV chat show. Answering a silent probing interlocutor about her love life, she laughingly negotiates falling into love with a forbidden lover, ‘know who my father is… couldn’t date… be a normal couple… always prepared for a secret relationship.’ It’s a beautifully calibrated performance.
Isley Lynn scripts and Littler and Robey direct this with the hesitations of a confiding tell-all over 15 minutes. And it gradually emerges just how forbidden her lover is. ‘Well I think smoking is disgusting.’ Tomlinson’s bubbly clarity, responding to questions about what the sex was like, with fendings-off of salacious judgments increases through the monologue.
Designed by Emily Stuart with the simple interview chair and table with water, the sound by Max Pappenheim includes those early TV sounds winds round to a testament of tragic proportions, the evisceration by media and Canace’s courageous defiance. Tomlinson’s gradually tortured by silent questions to an explosive ferocity. There’s other ‘not consequences… a life.’ And none of the dilemma faced or social consequences have gone away. ‘Our story… could have been so good.’ There’s a final act of defiance, one we all dream of someone doing.
Hypermestra: Girl on Fire, by Chinonyerem Odimba, directed by Adjoa Andoh. Starring Nicholle Cherrie
Hypermestra’s the only one of 50 daughters not to have obediently killed her husband on her wedding night: she saw love in her husband Lynceus to whom she’s writing. Nicholle Cherrie’s imprisoned awaiting trial by her father for defiance.
There’s a park bench and a tray of differently-sized candles designed by Jessie MacKenzie. Composer/Sound designer Nicola Chang has produced a striking ritual breathing motif loudly present and a humming chant. Cherrie herself moves between speech and chants. She tells not only her own story but the seeds of all this, as she grows – including the rape of a serving girl from another country screaming in her own language. Her pain increasing, Cherrie’s Hypermestra lights her candles.
The father meant well – escaping from 50 suitors who are also cousins, they wash up and Aeschylus’ Suppliants begins – and ends when Venus goddess of marriage too contrives the inevitable forced ones. Here though we’re focusing on the one daughter who wanted her husband, though quick enough to kill a sailor trying to rape a sister, and with no mercy contemplate the other 49 men. There’s a word the text scores through but Cherrie utters it. The candles tell us. There’s uncertain fire to face for a girl on fire for the truth. Andoh’s customary slow-burn direction allows this intricately wrought text time to breathe over 17 minutes.
Sappho: I See You Now, by Lorna French, directed by Tom Littler. Starring Martina Laird
Ovid’s creative impertinence imagines a real poet, whom his contemporaries would recognise as even his superior: and makes a myth of flesh.
Martina Laird narrates her love-letter, not the singing pretty lyrics Sappho’s acclaimed for. Designed by Emily Stuart there’s a dressing table with mirror that nominally gives out the audience, not Sappho. The perfume is Yardley’s English Rose.
Summer 2020. There’s a suitcase with evocative sound by Max Pappenheim, Tom Littler’s naturalist direction allows the knowing contemporaneity of Ovid’s tale – 600 years ago for him but in historical, not mythic time. And the lover? Britain itself, and its faithlessness to the Windrush generation. Is that why Laird has straight blonde hair? ‘I have made myself to please you. You have abandoned me with no noise… illegal immigrant.’
The betrayal of Britain’s refracted as a faithless lover to the Windrush generation. ‘I discovered too late that Britain cannot love anyone who is not a direct reflection of whiteness.’ Laird delivers this with a crescendo of pauses and sudden diminutions. Blonde? We’re about to see. Tearing up those pictures of her as an acclaimed singer, her sister in nurse’s uniform, her father in RAF attire in 1942 Sappho strips Britain from her. It’s a superb twist on our hostile environment. We have been faithless. So where will she go?
Tom Littler and his Jermyn Street team have again inhabited worlds. It’s one compensation this production is recorded, because it’s worth savouring. Yes certain performances stand out, partly because a famous voice will give us something we hope for. But all these performances even the briefest are distinctive, each writer gives on to a world each actor inhabits to its corners. Design is simple, motifs are shared – this is 15 plays in a tiny space – yet each breathes its integrity. If we’re going to have favourites it’s time to return to the others and ask why.
This is a groundbreaking answer to lockdown, and to expanding the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre’s reach. The smallest producing theatre in the West End through lockdown has become the largest.
Five women written into the stories of Theseus and Jason
Ariadne, by Bryony Lavery, directed by Tom Littler, designed by Louie Whitemore with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Patsy Ferran
Phaedra, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Adjoa Andoh, designed by Jessie MacKenzie, Composer/Sound Nicola Chang. Starring Dona Croll
Phyllis, by Samantha Ellis, directed by Cat Robey, designed by Emily Stuart with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Nathalie Armin
Hypsipyle, by Natalie Haynes, directed by Tom Littler, designed by Louie Whitemore with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Olivia Williams
Medea, by Juliet Gilkes Romero, directed by Adjoa Andoh, designed by Jessie MacKenzie, Composer/Sound Nicola Chang. Starring Nadine Marshall
Stories of the Trojan War
Laodamia, by Charlotte Jones, directed by Cat Robey and Tom Littler, designed by Emily Stuart with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Sophia Eleni
Oenone, by Lettie Precious, directed by Adjoa Andoh, designed by Jessie MacKenzie, Composer/Sound Nicola Chang. Starring Ann Ogbomo
Briseis, by Abi Zakarian, directed by Cat Robey, designed by Emily Stuart with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Jemima Rooper
Hermione, by Sabrina Mahfouz, directed by Adjoa Andoh, designed by Jessie MacKenzie, Composer/Sound Nicola Chang. Starring Rebekah Murrell
Penelope, by Hannah Khalil, directed by Tom Littler, designed by Louie Whitemore with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Gemma Whelan
Five women deserted – with stories to tell
Deianaria: The Striker, by April De Angelis, directed by Adjoa Andoh, designed by Jessie MacKenzie, Composer/Sound Nicola Chang. Starring Indra Ove
Dido: The Choice, by Stella Duffy, directed by Cat Robey, designed by Louie Whitemore with sound by Max Pappenheim starring Rosalind Eleazar
Canace: A Good Story, by Isley Lynn, directed by Cat Robey and Tom Littler, designed by Emily Stuart with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Eleanor Tomlinson
Hypermestra: Girl on Fire, by Chinonyerem Odimba, directed by Adjoa Andoh, designed by Jessie MacKenzie, Composer/Sound Nicola Chang. Starring Nicholle Cherrie
Sappho: I See You Now, by Lorna French, directed by Tom Littler, designed by Emily Stuart with sound by Max Pappenheim. Starring Martina Laird