It's typical of Ovid - the wittiest, naughtiest, cleverest writer of his age - that he should spot the chance to express himself through these lesser-told aspects of well-known myths. Forget Theseus - let's hear from Ariadne. Never mind Ulysses' journey- what about Penelope?
In his programme notes, JST artistic director, Tom Littler, discusses the origin of this project and how “imitative” translation, as defined by the poet Dryden, could bring out new elements of existing stories as opposed to what he described as “meta-phrasing”, more literal linguistic transpositions. A bit like literate jazz improvisation versus straight ahead replication of a “standard”; John Coltrane’s endless spontaneity versus Johnny Hodges, who led the saxophone section in the Duke Ellington Big Band in highly structured breaks.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid took the former approach in placing the side-lined heroines of Middle East and Mediterranean oral tradition, centre stage with a series of imaginary letters. These stories were so well known to every Roman and they persist to this day in many aspects of modern culture. One of the oldest books in my family is an Eighteenth Century edition of Ovid’s Metamorphises – featuring some of the characters referred to in these plays - but you don’t have to look far to find stories of Helen of Troy, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus and the Minotaur.
|Patsy Ferran as Ariadne|
Having only recently studied an epic German silent adaptation of Helen from 1924 (based on Homer’s take…), I was well placed to contextualise some of the stories but the strength of this production is that you don’t need to know too much of the myth; these stories all resonate not just in the narrative content but also in the way the text connects to recognisable individual concerns. These are women devastated by loss, ignored by so called heroes – just “thugs” as Penelope calls them – who prefer the distractive glory of battle to their domestic responsibilities – and the chase of new loves to the woman left behind.
The plays were rehearsed, performed and filmed live at Jermyn Street Theatre in socially distanced conditions and all capture the intimacy and power of this unique venue. You can almost feel your knees pressing against the seat in front and sense the reactions of the audience packed around you: this is what we’ve been missing!
Remarkably, each piece was performed and filmed live in a single take and this freshness comes across so well as each actor is absolutely in the moment. So many plays though yet whilst each is so different, so is every performance and all are high quality, engaging, warm, sorrowful, funny and, occasionally frightening. The monologues are in three strands with the pays directed variously and expertly, by Tom Littler, Adjoa Andoh and Cat Robey.
|Olivia Williams as Hypsipyle, the wife of Jason|
The Labyrinth - the women who encountered Jason and Theseus.
Are you friends, are you foes… are you gods?
String by Bryony Lavery features Patsy Ferran as Ariadne, half-sister to the half man-half bull, Minotaur who is wrestling with the fact that her lover has just killed her brother. Ariadne is shocked as she turns to face us before realising that we’re hear to listen to her story. Lavery’s script is literate and witty – I loved the play on words especially when Ariadne “loses her thread” as she discusses the ball of string given to Theseus to prevent him getting lost in the Labyrinth. He found his way out and has gone far beyond yet she is the one now lost even with the string. Ferran is funny and heartfelt, a classical mix.
Pity the Monster by Timberlake Wertenbaker has Dofia Croll as a fiery Phaedra, Ariadne’s sister, who marries her beloved, Theseus, also the killer of her half-brother… but, of course, she really loves his son Hippolytus. There are so many taboos broken by this woman but she is passionate in seeking “acceptance for desire…”.
|Dofia Croll as Phaedra|
I imagined you dead… in a nice way…
I'm Still Burning by Samantha Ellis has Nathalie Armin as Phyllis, married to the son of Phaedra and Theseus, Demophon, another faithless man who forgets to return home after his adventures. Nathalie Armin delivers the poetic truths with passionate deliberations and has the best costume of the show with leaves and branches growing from her head: an excellent physical performance too. The play, as with the story, examines the “political” and Phyllis regrets not writing it all down before any man could; Ovid, Chaucer and the rest betraying her as much as her lover.
|Nature is her goddess? Nathalie Armin as Phyllis|
Someone in love, is always full of fear…
Knew I Should Have by Natalie Haynes features Olivia Williams as Hypsipyle, the wife of Jason, sat in her home office wondering if her king will ever return after taking up with a new lover on his quest for the golden fleece. It’s another powerful performance with Williams swinging from tender devastation to bitter anger whilst the modern trappings serve only to remind us of the loneliness of the lovelorn; eternally, “tears flow down your fake face…”
The Gift by Juliet Gilkes Romero has Nadine Marshall as Medea, the woman Jason deserted Hypsipyle for and who, herself is now abandoned by him. Honestly Jason, once you’ve had your way and your golden fleece, you’re just not bothered, are you? Medea is now hunted having for so long been the hunter and Marshall’s playing is so poignant.
|Nadine Marshall as Medea|
The War - untold stories of the Trojan War
You know what I’m like, I can get a little bit extra!
Our Own Private Love Island by Charlotte Jones takes the prize for the funniest play with Sophia Eleni on fire as the laddette, Princess Laodamia of Phylace, aka “Lady P” who is “Greek, innit?” This is the Mycenaean Wars via Middlesex with Helen guilty of having “… broken the Girl Code, ain’t no coming back from that!” It’s not hard to see these characters as being in some kind of reality TV show and with seemingly mundane concerns. Yet all tragedy is mundane and our girl worries about her Prince going to war; “fight for your life and not to win”. Whatever you do, don’t be the first Greek to set foot on the Island of Troy…
|Sophia Eleni: Greek, innit?|
The Cost of Red Wine by Lettie Precious see Ann Ogbomo as a ferocious Odenone, so in love with Paris and so disappointed in him for choosing Helen. She had sheltered him before and there are clear indications that not only is Helen as “step up” in the world she is also white and Paris is “moving on” in a racially segregated world. It’s a stunning performance from Lettie who leaves nothing left on the stage as she hates and rages always in love… stunning!
|Love and loss: Ann Ogbomo|
Perfect Myth Allegory by Abi Zakarian sees Jemima Rooper as Briseis, concubine of Achilles, and a major reason, through no fault of her own, why her man and Agamemnon (Helen’s husband) argued. In this take of men fighting over as much as for women, she takes “joy in being free to wander into a history, I also will make.” She is able to take control of her feelings and use the men’s to her advantage.
Will You? by Sabrina Mahfouz takes another dramatic change of pace and venue as we see Rebekah Murrell as Hermione, being interviewed by the Police in connection of her former husband’s murder of his mother. Hermione’s life is complicated… the only child of Menelaus, and Helen, she was promised to Achilles' son, Neoptolemus even though she truly loved her cousin, Orestes.
Murrell is so assured as she roils her own in the interview room and the narrative soon switches from her character’s resilient confidence to the darker tones of arranged marriage among the upper classes and the marital rape that ensued. The Police support the pointlessly rich and “… we are both as bad as each other”.
If you won’t come home for your wife, come home for your sheets…
Watching the Grass Grow by Hannah Khalil features a superb turn from Gemma Whelan as Penelope, waiting for her husband Ulysses to return. Penelope in this instance is a home-working dress-maker whist her man has gone on a team-building exercise, yes, even in the midst of lockdown… Another script that emphasised the eternal truths of love and lies, Whelan’s adept turns of tone brought the tragedy out from her concerns for emails, texts and work/life balance.
|Gemma Whelan waiting for the man|
The Desert - women going their own way
The Striker by April De Angelis has Indra Ove as an embittered but resilient Deianaria, bemoaning the fall from grace of her husband Hercules Nevile… a fading soccer star who has played away once too often and become “… more like a guest than a husband.” Deianaria has a noble heritage and won’t be shamed as she plans the ultimate reckoning.
|Indra Ove, a WAG scorned|
In his arms I blossomed… and yet, it was not enough
time – the Gods cannot bare to see us happy!
The Choice by Stella Duffy sees Rosalind Eleazar as Dido, a princess of Lebanon, married to her uncle at 14, “a valued bride…” and raised to rule alongside her brother, Pygmalian. She escaped it all to found Carthage at the age of 25 which is verging on the upper reaches of over-achievement! She gives shelter to Aeneas after he arrives following the end of the Trojan Wars… the two fell for each other deeply.
The Gods call Aeneas away to Rome – a poor choice versus glorious Carthage – and Dido resolves to settle her own course, divine intervention be damned: “my life, my love, my city my choice…”
“I can understand why for some people it might be weird…
I’m not an idiot.”
A Good Story by Isley Lynn features Eleanor Tomlinson as Canace, daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds as she’s interviewed on television about her relationship with her own brother Macareus… which comes as quite the bombshell if you’re not familiar with the story. She has six sisters and seven brothers… and it’s funny/discomforting to hear Canace voice her position with modern sensibilities threaded through a well-worn situation in classical myth! Tomlinson with her delicate nervousness in character, gives one of the most affecting performances for what is in every way a tragedy.
To satisfy our honour, kill your husbands
Girl on Fire by Chinonyerem Odimba sees King Danaus’ daughter Hypermestra, played by Nicholle Cherrie, tasked, along with her 49 sisters, with mariticide… “the knowing lunacy of men!” She is the only one to refuse this slaughter, and waits her day in court having spared her husband, Lynceus.
The language, as throughout the plays is quite delicious, “I get to write only one letter to you… So much to say, so little papyrus.” Throughout there is an intake of breath repeated off stage, whilst Nicholle gets to sing and has such a lovely tone, I may well have wiped away a tear…
I See You Now by Lorna French has Martina Laird as Sappho, singer and poet for the ages and perhaps the most famous and misunderstood of these women? Here she has come to “the Mother Country” from Trinidad as a 16-year old… years later, she has given up everything for love but must decide whether he adopted country is worth her sacrifice.
Has it come to this? Mere days after Trump was deposed you hope not.
I ripped up pictures of my sister in her nurses’ uniform tending to Britain’s sick for years and years…
15 Heroines is a suitably epic and richly satisfying journey through these endless concerns and timeless characters, temporally recast in our modern setting. All hail Ovid’s invention but also everyone involved from the players, playwrights, and directors to the whole crew. This is a beacon of welcome hope for an industry under siege and, as with Carthage, one that has many glories to come!
The shows will stream at designated performance times from 7.30pm today, Monday 9th to Saturday 14th November. So, get set for a week of wonders!
The War Mon 9 7.30pm; Thurs 12 7.30pm; Sat 14 3.00pm
The Desert Tues 10 3.00pm; Weds 11 7.30pm; Friday 13 7.30pm
The Labyrinth Tues 10 7.30pm; Thurs 12 3.00pm; Sat 14 7.30pm
IThankYouTheatre rating: ***** Unmissable lockdown theatre, switch on your screen, dim the lights and get swept away by the grandeur of these performances and these naturalistic tales of epic humanity!