Prague Fringe 2012
Scopophilia is a unique one-woman show using physical theatre and dance to tell two intertwined stories while exploring ideas of voyeurism and power. As the two stories push on to their tragic conclusions, a wealth of thought-provoking ideas come to the surface, but a lack of focus and a tendency towards melodrama made it difficult to relate to these concepts or to the characters themselves.
Elizabeth Anne McCarthy is a Canadian theatre artist who has brought Scopophilia for its world premiere at the Prague Fringe Festival. The show follows the true life story of Mata Hari, a famous exotic dancer accused of espionage in France during WWI, and we are treated here to some of her dance routines and the theories underpinning them.
Around this true tale is the fictional story of Marina, a nude life drawing model at a crossroads in her life. We watch her posing on the stage as if we were the student painters copying her form, and we hear her inner monologue as she stands with all eyes upon her. This is a clever idea that forms a counterpoint to the Mata Hari sections, inviting us to reflect on the idea of the female form exposed to the dispassionate eye of the artist, with several questions of the relationship between the viewer and the person viewed.
Elizabeth Anne McCarthy gives a fantastic performance, tirelessly switching between complex dances and an appreciation for model posing, with fine character acting that brings the twin protagonists to life in a surprisingly chatty script, for a play that is about the female form caught beneath the male gaze.
The production and stage design were less successful, with pencil sketches hung about haphazardly and items of Mata Hari’s wardrobe hanging off the backs of chairs and elsewhere. This aspect of the show seemed caught between minimalism and a desire to fill the stage with feminine ‘texture.’ The less-is-more approach would have been more suitable to convey the idea of the figure on the stage being alone and helpless before the gaze of the audience.
Scopophilia is a very ambitious project, it risks a lot and the script doesn’t always live up to the challenge. We are supposed to see Mata Hari as an enigma, but in fact the background story, showing her at home with her uncle, or building up the reasons for her espionage, leave little room for mystery or intrigue. Then the scenes involving her Russian lover, particularly when he addresses the audience himself, are so melodramatic that it’s difficult to feel anything at all.
This problem could have been offset if the second story had offered a contrast, but instead it builds to even more melodrama, incidentally creating an anticlimax since we are left to believe that Marina has gone insane. This undermines everything we’ve seen – shouldn’t the process of thinking through the life of Mata Hari have been a lucid sequence of ideas that led to Marina working out the problems in her own inner life?
For me the script, like the production, would have been more suited to the material if it had been pared back to allow more silence and space for these female forms to come to life beneath the gaze, rather than through their extremely verbose monologues. Likewise, the action could be limited to suggest more and show less, and the character of Marina could be simplified to a more ordinary person, with the usual frustrations and anxieties of everyday life rather than an unconvincing world of escalating violence and madness.
Nonetheless, Elizabeth Anne McCarthy’s fascination with Mata Hari comes through and pulls the audience along with her. She clearly believes that the story must be told, and Scopophilia provides a convincing argument that this is so – if you’re not already familiar with the ill-fated dancer, you’ll be glad to get to know her.