FringeReview UK 2023
Emma Wilkinson Wright manages the narrative as an odyssey punctuated by screams. It’s already a phenomenal performance and the actor is so wholly immersed in Rika you know you’re in the presence of something remarkable
Written by Gail Louw, performed by Emma Wilkinson Wright and to be Directed by Anthony Shrubsall, at Playground Theatre.
Gail Louw’s known at Jermyn Street Theatre for The Ice-Cream Boys, Shackleton’s Carpenter and a reading of Storming!
In November, Playground Theatre featured two of Louw’s solo plays: The Good Dad and The Mitfords which featured the actor performing and reading here: Emma Wilkinson Wright (The Changeling, Southwark, The Mitfords Edinburgh Fringe, The Only White, Chelsea).
Rika’s Rooms, which will feature Wilkinson Wright in the first of a mini-festival of four Louw plays at the Playground Theatre in February-March (Rika’s Rooms, Shackleton’s Carpenter, Storming! and the new Girl in a Green Sweater) will be as often, directed by Anthony Shrubsall.
Though acclaimed for many plays over the past two decades (Louw was a late starter) with three Methuen/Bloomsbury collected volumes to her credit, has done something unusual: adapt.
Rika’s Rooms is based on her first novel. And that fiction is based on Louw’s mother’s experience. But her mother isn’t Rika. Freedom-fighter, coloniser, housewife, terrorist, victim, oppressor? Rika doesn’t even know at 76, what room she’s in.
And deftly, Louw suggests neither do we for a millisecond. We adjust and Wilkinson Wright with her voice-coach background illuminates with a gravelly Rika aged 76, a child’s high tessitura, never over-emphasised, and that of a spirited, selfish, sexually eager young woman, compromised by the 20th century; but not for long.
Louw’s drama builds on the way she sashays bewitchingly, and fluidly through decades and states of mind.
The novel’s easy to follow. The drama in Wilkinson-Wright’s hands is even easier. There’s brief moments when you’d wish for a signpost, and others when “she says” can be pruned, as was touched on in the post-show discussion.
Lous has condensed the 224-page novel into essentially the first half of Rika’s experience, with s brief coda. So we’re brisked through Germany and Rika’s parents sending her to safety to Palestine to be with her sister and aunt; then her experience of sexual wakening with the long-desired Nathan in Palestine, twisted with a sexual obsession so sharp that Rika only wants to know of his fate in a rescue-bid undercover in 1943 Hungary, not the death of 23-year-old greatly gifted poet and comrade Hannah. “But what about Nathan?” Rika asks through her sister’s outrage. It’s an index of a one-trac sexual obsession and a less than lovely conscience. That feeling though is seismically altered with more news.
Those screams rise in intensity, but are never overdone. There’s a crescendo of grief and self-discovery. Climactically, Rika’s ordered by the Irgun in the wake of emotional emptiness to seduce a kindly British colonel and experiences conflicting emotions as “my body says something else” and she responds to his warmth and gentleness as a lover and man. “I came like I never come before” she puts it plainly. Yet she leaves him to hid fate, sleeping after just one night, at the King David Hotel: a key point the Jewish-British conflict of 1946.
Shortly after she meets Morris, the South African who’ll marry her. The scenes in South Africa, and her developing non-relationship with servant Dina, are flashlit through to the end as a coda. In two halves and at one hour 40, there’s no time to explore the latter half of the novel, As drama this is the right cut.
There’s treasurable moments to give a taste of what’s to come:
“In actual fact, I might want to be a socialist if I understood what it meant, but I don’t want to live on the kibbutz and not have my own stuff. I mean, I really don’t want to wear big fat Yudit’s knickers.’”
“‘Let them look at someone else for a change, not us. Keep schtum, close your mouth, close your eyes and enjoy the sunshine and the milk and the honey!’
‘So a Jew must only ever do what is right for other Jews, not other human beings?’ I ask.
‘Go to sleep, Rika, do me a favour.’”
“‘What!’ he says.
‘We don’t have sexual intercourse anymore?’ I say.
‘Ma!’ he says, ‘I’m your daughter for Christ’s sake!’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘that’s what you always say.’”
Wilkinson Wright manages the narrative as an odyssey punctuated by screams. It’s already a phenomenal performance and the actor is so wholly immersed in Rika you know you’re in the presence of something remarkable – I’d say in embryo but this performance is hatched. The Playground Theatre festival will be worth waiting for.