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Fringe Online 2021

Women on War

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Poetry-Based Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre and Online

Festival: ,

Low Down

Directed by Helen Eastman. Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till May 30th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.


Live Canon are back at Jermyn Street. They’re an ensemble, a collective really of performers and writers made up of a sizeable company. This is just one of the live shows they’re bringing here. Their website proclaims:

‘Performance repertoire includes: The Romantics, The Metaphysicals, War Poets, Shakespeare and Co., The Bloomsbury Group, The Pre-Raphaelites, Around the World in 80 Poems, On Love, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Emerging Poets, On Troy, Made in Greenwich, From Oxford, West Country Poets, At Sea and many other bespoke programmes.’

Several more of those will hit Jermyn Street – The Romantics, The Metaphysicals, The Pre-Raphaelites and others. Do look out for them, they’re exciting, never overstay poetry’s welcome which at 45 minutes is about ideal, and curate a truly un-depth difference and delivery. This isn’t a recitation of chestnuts.

Three of the women actors – their names haven’t been vouchsafed, so I’ll append a list of possible credits – here perform a series of poems by women in wartime, under the direction of multi-tasking writer/director/academic Helen Eastman. There’s some true finds, kicking into the very long grass the marginalising of women poets in wartime beyond a very few standards.

Women on War covers Ancient Greece to modern times, which you might expect. It’s not a strictly chronological survey though moves towards the contemporary. The trio perform singly, in sequence, or sometimes in an antiphonal line-throwing caught by each in turn. They’re a consummate trio, clearly completely inside tone, sonance and introduction of each piece, or sequence, in turn.

We step in World War One and well-known names like Edith Sitwell’s (1887-1964) in ‘The Dancers’ from 1915, a laconically, objective blink of time and rhythm (she was editing Wheels with her brothers in the army) to whirl us into act one.

Louise Bogan (1897-1970) on the loss of her brother from (I think) her collection Body of This Death (1923). This is fresh, an American loss in WW1, and by a very fine lyric poet a little overshadowed by her contemporary Leonie Adams and the now relaunched Edna St Vincent Millay. It’s an unquiet quiet poem, and the trio take this as one of their refractive presentations: war not as direct but oblique, strange, whispered terror and grief, headed off into a room under muttered voices. Exclusion.

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), always sceptic famously proclaims ‘Become as little children, the recruiting officer says’ and her own subversive brilliance in poems and short stories as well as novels is bizarrely underrated. May Herschel Clark answers Rupert Brooke’s sonnet ‘The Soldier’ also read, with her own in the voice of the mother, reflecting back each image, except the end: ‘my grief, which you’ll never know’. It’s a muted sting, not yet bellicose against war.

Eva Dobell’s poem is a fine representative elegy, and then that poem ‘To RAL Died of Wounds 23rd December 1915’ and some of us immediately know we’re getting the poem Vera Brittain (1896-1970) wrote when her fiancé R A Leighton was killed. It and the death of her brother seeded Testament of Youth. It’s a fine elegy, from a writer now associated with elegiac prose.

We step back to Greek myth briefly, and through other periods too, Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), the Second World War with Helena Aufsgetter (?) survivor of atrocities and the great poet Ingeborg Bachman (1926-73), both producing spare stripped-back worlds, a country wiped flat by bombs, even rurally.

There’s poetry too from a far wider range of poets and poetries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Uganda (sheerly painful) and Liberia for one of the most haunting poems of all on complete devastation, particularly of children. Women poets have far more to say recently than men, and why this recent work isn’t better known is bound up with the answer.

In such swift recitations, I didn’t catch all the names though referencing them all might prove little more than a catalogue. But Irina Ratushinskaya (b. 1954) whose imprisonment as nearly the last poet imprisoned under the Soviet regime went global (that last was Ukraine poet Ihor Pavlyuk b. 1967), writes tellingly of a dog, raised in better times.

Around half the ensemble are women, so it’s worth suggesting credits, even if there’s some (unstated) anonymising aesthetic against this:

Alice Barclay, Helena Johnson, Holly Atkins, Claire Redcliffe, Sophie Scott, Sophie Crawford, Eva Traynor, Mairin O’Hagan, Rosanna Frascona.

This really is an utterly refreshing crash-course, and you only wish the poems were available, or indeed an anthology of several of the programmes together. That might however constitute a break with this magic. Exemplary, revelatory.