Being a woman in Greek Mythology isn’t easy and for the most part they sit on the sidelines, forgotten sideshows to what are predominantly male narratives of war, conquest and feats of daring. Where women do feature, they are mere prizes to be won, abandoned wives, jilted lovers and objects to be admired or possessed whereas female-led tales tend to have a central character who is mad, a dangerous child-killer or has an unhealthy obsessions with their male relatives. Ovid’s collections of letters entitled Heroines puts these women centre stage, and although many focus on the absent male presence to whom they are addressed, they question the grand stories of honour, glory and heroism.
The small Jermyn Street Theatre was one of the first to respond to this summer’s lockdown, recognising instantly the power and possibility of digital theatre in the subsequent months. Their latest project 15 Heroines was announced some months ago, challenging a number of female playwrights to rewrite Ovid’s stories for the modern day and performed as standalone monologues by a female cast of well-known and rising stars. Filmed just before the second lockdown and streamed in repertory last week, these three collections of five plays – subtitled War, Labyrinth and Desert – are a triumph of ingenuity and responsiveness, drawing parallels with concepts of crisis, the everyday reality of living through and beyond them, and ensuring that in a changing theatrical landscape, some of the first voices we hear are female.
There is a tonal commonality across the three anthologies filmed entirely on the small Jermyn Street stage but eschewing any reference to the theatre in the visual presentation of these works. And while naturally such a major undertaking means there is variability in the success of the pieces, together they have a youthful energy, reflecting the all-too-often overlooked power and importance of female perspectives amongst the male posturing of classical tales. Even when they are pining for their absent lovers, in many cases we feel an equality in these partnerships; their men may be fighting wars that no one much believes in, but these women are barely impressed and certainly determined to be heard.
Each anthology premiered to an audience of 250-300 – impressive for a theatre with a maximum capacity of 70 – each focused on five different but connected women affected by the decisions of their partner. The first examines the consequences of the love affair between Helen and Paris, and the ensuing decade-long battle between the Trojans and the Spartans. Pitched at different periods during these years, War offers several new angles on a seemingly well-known story as the consequences of abandonment, dynastic inter-marriage and loyalty test the glory narrative of men fighting for honour – something that Briseis notes men are born with but women must earn with their chastity and good behaviour.
The strongest of the three collections Labyrinth is framed by the stories of Theseus and Jason, heroic men on quests to defeat monsters and bring glory to their people. Instead, they leave a trail of female destruction in their wake, one which these playwrights argue is visited back on them. The Desert has a looser thematic connection between the women featured but focuses on tales of revenge, empowerment and decision-making that takes the characters in new directions.
Looking across the three collections, the segments are at their best when they entirely rethink as well as modernise the role of each character, transitioning to a position of strength rather than the passivity afforded them by myths and legends, even when their narratives and purpose has been shaped by the men around them. Abi Zakarian is one of the most successful, putting a very different spin on the life of Achilles’s wife who, won as part of the spoils of war, has only the only true sense of agency in the first collection of monologues. Brilliantly performed by Jemima Rooper, Briseis is sharp, savvy and more than a match for anyone who crosses her path and Zakarian’s text changes pace confidently with elements of comic excess that unexpectedly evolve into something a little more savage in the surprising but delicious conclusion.
We see this also in Bryony Lavery’s reimagining of the deserted Ariadne seduced by Theseus after slaying her Minotaur brother and left to wander alone on Naxos. Entitled String and included in the Labyrinth collection, alhough scorned, it is Ariadne’s brilliant mind, her scientific reason and rationality that dominate a story in which Theseus becomes a minor blip in an otherwise educated and full life. Performed by Patsy Ferran, Ariadne comes alive in this 20-minute piece, given emotional depth and a wry humour that Ferran inhabits entirely while the build-up to the final moment of female strength is grippingly played.
Also from Labyrinth, Samantha Ellis’s retelling of Phyllis’s abandonment by Theseus’s son Demophon is one of the smartest and most atmospheric monologues in the programme. And while this is a fairly straightforward rage against abandonment trajectory, Ellis gives depth and purpose to Phyllis’s experience. Staged as a dramatic and gothic woodland scene, Nathalie Armin imbues the character with a force of personality that turns the story upside down, showing that Phyllis is not merely another tragic woman who can’t live without a man, but that Demophon has foolishly messed with the wrong one. Like Ariadne, this woman is going to have the final say. Taken out of ordinary rooms and the recognisable locations of other stories and placed in a mystical place of possible witchcraft and spirits, I’m Still Burning is one of the most powerful pieces in the three anthologies.
Desert also offers up some smart twists on the original tale, placing Rosalind Eleazar’s Dido in a different light as the woman who built a city from nothing and makes a sound-minded decision to end her life – rather life Cleopatra – following the departure of Aeneas, rather than a suicide hastened by pining loss. Likewise, April De Angelis’s reworking of Hercules’s partner Deianaria as a scorned footballer’s wife who exacts a terrible revenge on her cheating husband. By recasting the hero’s labours as soccer achievements and a pivotal Strictly appearance, performer Indra Ové exposes the unsavoury underbelly of celebrity and the hollow reality of the monied lifestyle.
A complete scenario reset also offers contemporary insight and reflection, for Isley Lynn who intriguingly places her Canace (Eleanor Tomlinson) on a chat show in which the audience only hears one side of the conversation. If unfamiliar with the story, over the course of 15-minutes we slowly piece together the facts of a grand romance gone badly wrong as the outside world comes crashing it. Intriguing too is Desert’s concluding piece by Lorna French about Sappho whose quiet start explodes into a conversation about Windrush, race and betrayal that makes Britain itself the crushing lover.
Some of the writers have done less to reorientate their characters, and while settings or eras have been updated, they remain entirely defined by the men who have left them – even when more interesting possibilities present themselves. In Know I Should Have by Natalie Haynes (Labyrinth), Hypsipyle becomes another bitter, wine-drinking victim when Jason abandons her to seek the Golden Fleece and falls for Medea. Olivia Williams is very credible as the crossed Queen, but on an island filled with women who have slain their dishonest menfolk, why is this tale of marital abandonment the one Haynes wants to tell – a powerful monarch of female warriors reduced to a Bridget Jones parody with a side of rage.
Lettie Precious has the same problem with Oenone in War, bemoaning the departure of Paris in such heightened and desperate terms that the audience just wants her to pull herself together. The fascinating tones of racism and its physical manifestation in the body are overwhelmed by the debased pleading. Likewise the story of Penelope in War, though amusingly played by Gemma Whelan, becomes that of just a nice middle class wife waiting interminably for news of Ulysses return in Hannah Khalil’s interpretation in which Penelope sends nagging text messages while being entirely defined by her man.
None of these approaches moves very far from Ovid or the two millenia of dismissal heaped on these women already. Only Charlotte Jones gets the balance right with Laodamia’s tale, a piece that borders on the heightened comedy of reality TV to present the fearful wife of Protesilaus who goes to war on behalf of Menelaus. Laodamia (Sophia Eleni) may be a wailing woman wanting her man to return but her story has more contemporary resonance, exploring concerns about joining fights that are not their own, her own reflections on Helen’s supposed allure and the underlying pain felt by military wives who fear the worst.
One notable theme across all fifteen stories, however, is the common failings of masculinity and while battles and concepts of honour have been celebrated for two thousand years, these women offer an alternative perspective. In fact, the male characters collectively referred to in absentia are uniformly feckless, cheating, disloyal, selfish and unnecessarily aggressive, prizing conflict and its spoils far beyond anything truly meaningful with the women who care for them.
In War, the eagerness with which the various male leaders flock to Menelaus’s side is treated with disdain by the wives, a foolish decade-long fight over nothing (to them). But it engenders a series of terrible deeds, women like Briseis won as trophies and then despoiled, Menelaus and Helen’s own daughter Hermoine (written by Sabrina Mahfouz) sold in marriage and raped by her husband for ancestral gain while Paris, so often represented as the ardent and impassioned lover, is shown cuckolding women long before he lays claim to Helen.
The notion of men as serial seducers, not to be trusted burns through Labyrinth as several of the protagonists fall for Theseus, his son or Jason, abandoning all reason and their virginity before being summarily replaced by a younger or more attractive alternative partner. The picture of reckless and careless conquerors this creates is not so much honourable as despicable when each man heads off on further quests with promises to write and return. History, written by men, has pitched these characters as heroes and Gods, but across 15 Heroines a new possibility emerges in which these breakers of oaths fall foul of their all-too-human vices.
In coordinating fifteen playwrights, characters and performers Jermyn Street Theatre have successfully completed their own Herculean labours to deliver this fascinating anthology. Across three beautifully staged and filmed collections each lasting around 80-minutes, 15 Heroines is an impressive and energised reworking of Greek myth that leaves the audience keen to find out more about each of these women and their remarkable lives.
15 Heroines was streamed in repertory by Jermyn Street Theatre from 9-14 November and will be available again from 20-22 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
Let’s block ads! (Why?)