FringeReview UK 2018
Festival: FringeReview UK
Towards the end of ‘Sisterhood’, Jules Craig, one of the three actors who perform the piece (along with a musician) told us that as she got older, past the menopause, she realised that all the trappings – possessions, husband, children – that she’d been told she needed to be ‘a woman of importance’, were actually just stories. “They were just spinning us yarns.”
Yarns. At the beginning of this bit she’d come out of her Marjorie character and moved to the front of the stage to toss a ball of knitting yarn into the audience, holding on to the thread’s end. At earlier points in the play, first Jolie Booth and then Coco Maertens had done the same, with their own balls of wool. Booth told us about the trials and desperation of conceiving a child, while Maertens related her adolescence as a girl, burdened with obligations and responsibilities not experienced by the males in her family, her brother and father.
Birth. Youth. Age. I was reminded of The Fates of Greek mythology – Clotho, who spun the thread of a person’s life; Lachenis, who measured out its length; Atropos, who used her shears to cut it off. The ancients took it for granted that existence was in the hands of females.
It was a remarkable experience – three actors coming out of character to give us what I’m fairly certain were real episodes from their own lives; pointing up the sad fact that the oppressed and second-class role of women in society hasn’t changed very much in over four hundred years. With perfect timing, The Marlborough’s staging took place alongside the continuing fallout of the Weinstein story and #MeToo, and in the very same week as Brett Kavanaugh’s fractious appointment as a US Supreme Court judge. Zeitgeist, or what? Some things have changed, of course. Nowadays women who upset the patriarchy are ‘uppity’, or ‘hysterical’ – in the Europe of four centuries ago they were ‘Witches’.
Marjorie, Alice and Kitty – three women locked inside a church overnight. As the play unfolded, it became clear that they have been accused of being witches, and they’re going to be burned at the stake in the morning. Set designer Alberta Jones had created the location with the barest of elements – just a church pew at one side of the stage, and a heavy-looking door with a barred window on the other, both in off-white paint that gave the appearance of bleached wood. A tall central panel at the rear served as a screen for projections – most of the time a gothic stained-glass window image, which completed the illusion of the building interior. The women were dressed in bleached colours too. Long linen skirts and blouses with laced bodices, topped off with white mop-caps. Aprons as well – these are village women, dressed for domestic chores.
Village women – but they’ve been accused of witchcraft. This was a time when anything which threatened the authority of the Church was suspect. Following the old pre-Christian religion and folklore traditions was Heresy. Challenging the dominance of the priest, or of one’s husband or one’s father, meant that a woman was out of control, and probably ‘possessed’. To be childless – barren – was obviously the fault of the wife, never of the husband. The play presents us with all these occurrences, suffered by its three characters, but the real power of the piece is the way in which the women support and comfort each other. It’s not called ‘Sisterhood’ for nothing …
Support and comfort; with jokes, bravado, and stolen communion wine – but of course they can’t ignore the appalling fate that awaits them in the morning. Terror is lurking just below the surface, and it was given visceral form by the musical accompaniment of the fourth performer. Sophia Craig-Daffern was surrounded by a set of heavy metal bowls; brass, bronze, or something similar, and she stroked their lips with a stone pestle to produce an eerie humming – like running a finger round a wine-glass but deeper in tone – that carried across the Marlborough auditorium while still letting us hear the actors clearly. Unearthly. Unsettling. Edgy. And hugely effective.
Craig-Daffern wasn’t part of the action, but sat cross-legged at the front edge of the stage, with a short green dress and sparkling glitter on her face and bare arms, giving her the appearance of some kind of woodland sprite. She brought to mind Pan, or maybe Puck – a manifestation of pagan folklore and of the Wild Wood.
Sisterhood. Women supporting each other. A real ensemble performance from Jules Craig as Marjorie, Jolie Booth as Alice, and Coco Maertens as Kitty. Alice and Kitty are innocent victims, caught up in prejudice and abuse that’s outside their control. Marjorie, though, might well be practising her pagan beliefs – she mentions the Celtic festival of Beltane, and misses ‘her’ jackdaw. A familiar? We were left to decide that for ourselves.
Marjorie takes the lead in keeping up her companions’ spirits, and teasing out their histories. She’s angry with the way that the feminine side of Christianity – the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus – has been sidelined by the exclusively male hierarchy of the Church fathers. Women’s bodies, too; their biology. One of the women has been kept ignorant of the mechanics of menstruation. “The priest said ’tis the curse – ’tis not a curse, ’tis a blessing!”
Jolie Booth wrote ‘Sisterhood’, as well as performing in it. On one level her play is a powerful rant against the abuse and misogyny that women suffered, and continue to suffer. But underlying the polemic is a warm and engaging portrayal of how women can look after each other and reinforce their identity. It’s also an unforgettable theatrical experience, visually and aurally stunning, and the applause at the end was loud and long. It’s an unashamedly feminist piece, strident and challenging, but I was reassured to note that a significant proportion of the Marlborough audience was male.