Women of the Mourning Fields

Tue 11th – Sun 30th August 2015

reviews

William Shaw

at 11:43 on 19th Aug 2015

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Women of the Mourning Fields is best described as Toy Story as written by Samuel Beckett, with a bit of help from a Shakespeare hot off the success of Titus Andronicus. Unfortunately, that description probably does this play a few too many favours, as an idea with tons of potential is marred by bare-bones production values and uninspired writing. A history play about the way we read historical narratives, this is yet another student production which shows that in metafiction, the meta is rather less important that the fiction.

The plot concerns the Roman historical figures Agrippina, Poppaea and Octavia, trapped in a nightmarish limbo and forced to act out their bloody chapter of ancient history every night for a tyrannical stage director and an indifferent audience. It's a wonderfully high concept premise, but the true horror of its central idea is largely brushed over in favour of wooden banter and lots of tedious speeches about the place of women in history. These are undoubtedly important points, but would be better served by coming from interesting characters as opposed to the bland archetypes on offer here.

There are some good moments here; the staging, while minimal, makes inventive use of lighting to convey shifts in the role of the narrator, and there are a few genuinely clever uses of simultaneous staging to convey two scenes from a single character's point of view.

Performances are broadly competent, and while none stand out as particularly memorable, none betray the kind of ham or inexperience necessary to scupper the production. Grace Gilbert has enough skill and charisma as Agrippina to make you wish you were watching her in a better play, and Sophie Harris and Rebecca Forsyth play the other two as well as can be expected.

It's just a bit limp all round, really. There are interesting ideas here, but half of them are presented incoherently and the other half rely on such tired dramatic conventions as to rob them of their power. The dialogue is replete with clichéd lines, which is ironic for a play about rejecting negatively gendered stereotyping of history.

The play is best summarised by a single moment within it when, discussing a mad emperor, a character declared "'Mad' is a word used by lazy writers". People who live in glass houses…

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Melanie Beckerleg

at 11:52 on 19th Aug 2015

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Aulos Productions brings to life a tale of passion, murder and intrigue. Three women: Emperor Nero’s mother, Agrippina (Grace Gilbert), and his two wives, Octavia (Rebecca Forsyth) and Poppea (Sophie Harris) give a ‘retelling’ of the events surrounding Nero’s life – in which the male characters are thrust to the side, and women take centre-stage.

The play hinges on the idea that these women, like so many others through history, have been simplified and neglected. It’s a simple enough concept, if a little heavy-handedly delivered, and gave some purpose to what could easily have become a seemingly endless stream of assassination plots.

Brechtian techniques abound as the commentaries and interjections of the characters direct the story that is being told. The cast make full use of the stage, spilling out towards the audience. Simple but effective lighting helps sift between different scenes and the performance is also interrupted by the presence of an even further removed character; The Voice (James Beagon) who at times proves comical, at other times sinister, and is occasionally both.

As the main characters fight for control of narration, leading to some very clever and engaging scenes, the play makes a striking comment on the impossibility of piecing together history given the fallibility of human memory. Whilst clever, the style does however lend itself to a fragmented performance; this was something that certainly held the cast back. Whenever characters seemed close to accessing deeper emotions, or building to a striking performance – they were cut-off by other cast members or The Voice.

There are some sterling performances from the cast – particularly Sophie Harris’ savage cynicism as Poppea, and her heart-wrenching depiction of a woman torn between ambition and love. Ben Horner’s unsettling portrayal of the depraved Emperor Caligula makes for a striking opening. As the play draws on however, there are moments where strong performers end up simply shouting each other down and occasionally muddling delivery.

There’s no doubt the performance did attempt to cover too much– the flashbacks are relentlessly intense, and the frantic pace meant a lack of depth in covering complex issues. That said, the cast skilfully negotiate the various historical figures that pass through a gripping narrative – even if you do have to work fairly hard to keep up.

It’s a play that comes across at times as overly-complicated and rushed. Nonetheless, for those who enjoy historical dramas, it’s a powerful and exciting performance.

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