EFR - Reviews of Magdalen

Magdalen

Fri 7th – Mon 31st August 2015

reviews

Ben Driscoll

at 09:39 on 13th Aug 2015

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At times in Magdalen, for a brief moment, before flipping between characters, Erin Layton pauses and contorts her body, eyes bulging and bewildered, exorcising one character and evoking the nest. It’s a strangely demonic image, not usually befitting of the one-woman-play’s setting: an Irish Magdalen laundry, a religious commercial wash-house run by nuns in ‘50s Dublin, but Magdalen is not a pure story.

Erin Layton performs as a multitude of characters, but her flash of silent catatonic frenzy represents a shared sentiment through all characters, of knowing malice and suffering, those who enforce it and those who endure it, but never speak of it.

Magdalen delves into the not so oft-told stories of the Catholic girls and women who were considered ‘fallen’, due to pregnancy out of wedlock, being prostitutes and even being disabled, and thus were sent to Magdalen laundries, (places with work standards akin to slavery) washing clothes of dirt and their souls of sin at the same time.

Following the stories of four different ‘fallen girls’ Magdalen does not follow the conventional narrative arc, mainly because the hell seems so unending. The mundanity and severity of their washing chores are meant to bring them closer to god, however they are haunted by their ‘mistakes’ with well choreographed flashbacks.

Mother Superior, the Nurse Ratched of the Magdalen Laundry, is the embodiment of religious hypocrisy: a holier-than-thou figure of power who’s eternal hand-clasp evokes the terror of uniformity. Mother speaks of redemption through penitence. She indoctrinates. One character is so excited by the notion of redemption that her whole sanity rests on the certainty of her destiny in heaven.

Others are more elucidated, grounded in their worldly knowledge of right and wrong. In a progression that is all too familiar with institutionalised ‘individuals’, these characters, though interesting to the audience, are gradually broken down by the inhuman routine resulting in their soul-numbing submission.

Magdalen’s set is rudimentary to the extent that it is penitent, as if for having considered it could be more elaborate. It allows the light to fall on Layton’s ever-changing face. Her eyes at times are weak and flit up into the authority of holy lighting for help, other times her eyes rest on you.

It’s a very serious piece of documental drama: it’s also uncomfortable. But it feels necessary. So often are women written out of real life or history because of the dismissive discourse of man or religion. The play winds to a heartbreaking, expected halt, grounded in the reality of the story’s history. This performance conjures the lost voices of thousands of abused women in a simple but devastating style. Definitely go and see this.

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Ed Grimble

at 11:06 on 13th Aug 2015

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Paradise in the Vault, on Edinburgh’s Merchant Street, is an eerily appropriate setting for Uncompromising Artistry Production’s production Magdalen. Hot and cramped, often bordering on the claustrophobic, the theatrical space is a windowless vault bisected by a low arch-cum-proscenium. Creating an intimacy that catalyses the feelings of entrapment and exasperation that drive this play, the audience is also given a point of view reminiscent of a pin-hole camera, and as such the unfolding drama is relentlessly focused upon.

Set in a dingy Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry, a grandiose title that soon becomes a vacuous substitute for a disreputable Catholic workhouse, Magdalen unwaveringly confronts issues of religious authority, sexual abuse and the inescapability of the poverty which slowly but irresistibly destroys the lives of the play’s characters. This theme of the unavoidable is what gives the play it’s emotional force, as the tragic end result of the play comes in no way as a surprise, and the plot carries a sense of desperate resignation devoid of optimism. There is no support of the underdog here, instead the audience is made to simply watch and wait for the girls’ suffering to end with grim acceptance.

One-actor shows are notoriously problematic to stage successfully, given the sheer number of serious pitfalls which such an undertaking brings. From the physical hardship of carrying a whole performance, to the difficulties of portraying multiple characters in a way that demonstrates difference between personae, whilst avoiding hyperbolic and exaggerated distinction between roles. Erin Layton is then, despite the challenges her play presents, a tremendous success. Given the lack of costume changes, breaks between scenes, or varying dialects (all of the characters speak in a thick, if somewhat hit and miss, Irish brogue), Layton’s physical acting is tested. Through strong recurring idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, from Ellie’s hunched posture and distorted facial expressions to the Reverend Mother’s tightly interwoven fingers and stiff back, Layton is able to shift effortlessly between characters, allowing her plot to maintain crucial momentum.

Through its gut-wrenching portrayal of social injustice and exploitation of Dublin’s most vulnerable citizens, at the hands of those who purport to stand as bastions of morality, Magdalen turns the spotlight on a topic that is refreshingly different from the usual dark satanic mills that serve as backdrop to tales of dysfunctional society and impoverishment. It is a sterling, if emotionally taxing, example of the potentials for intensity that a one-actor show can provide, and it is certainly worth a watch.

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