Heroine – Traverse Theatre

Writer: Mary Jane Wells

Director: Susan Worsfold

At the heart of this production, a prime example of raw, honest theatre, is the life story of Danna Davis. Adapted in a brutal, purposeful way, Heroine hasn’t been crafted by writer and performer Mary Jane Wells as a sob story, nor a hate piece – it’s a profound amalgam of anger, outrage, fragility and survival.

Five stools, five spotlights – one story. Danna Davis, a woman serving in the United States military who must work, live and survive among those who have sexually assaulted her; those who threaten her life, and the lives of those she loves every day. More than this, it’s a story for anyone in the room, those at home and both Wells and Davis, ensuring silence is no longer an associate of perpetrators.

Written in a variety of fashions, Well’s production combines metaphorical lyricism with gritty, literal expression to demonstrate both the innate power of the human condition, as well as the fragility we all share. Rather than an extensive discussion of the sexual assault Davis experienced, a contained segment is all which is required, a lacerating depiction of the event, hushing what feels like the world for a few minutes as Well’s dedication and respect for the role speaks volumes. Cast in George Tarbuck’s lighting design, it’s a harrowing piece of beautiful theatre design, even as it uncovers the degeneracy and retaliation within our armed forces.

An assault on the senses, Matt Padden’s effective sound design is disorientating at times, though this is inherently the idea behind such design. Loud, invasive and immediate, the stark change of everyday noises into PTSD situations triggers the transformation which pushes Heroine beyond observational. It’s sensory theatre, quite possibly one of the few shows which would work equally as a radio or audio drama.

Remarkably personal, Well’s writing captures (we suspect) as close an account of Davis’ experience as possible. In a haunting way, it’s a beautifully written production – distressingly lyrical, wrapping such vile, grim reality in a vexing garb which, despite its subject matter, is funny, touching, engaging and in some morbid sense – comforting. Well’s performance conveys the process of grief, just as equally as the process of aggression and forgiveness, and in tandem with Susan Worsfold’s wonderfully simplistic, yet effective direction builds rapport with the audience quickly.

Perhaps a result of the heightened emotional nexus, Heroine finds itself an overflow of intense moments. Never detracting from the message, structurally it causes halts and wobbles in a production which otherwise is a pinnacle of honesty. With how rooted Well’s writing is in the life of another, and the experiences of so many, there’s little wonder that emotion bubbles over, occasionally taking Wells out of her role as Davis, throwing her off.

The fact we sit in 2020, with powerful productions such as Well’s still a necessity to offer a release, opening dialogue for those experiencing sexual assault and retaliation while serving in the armed forces, is beyond explanation, but it’s a story we need to hear. A story we must preserve, ensuring that for as long as sexual assaults within any workplace, especially those who defend our nations, continues, that there remain a stark reminder and avenue of exploration for all.

Review originally published for Reviewshub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/heroine-traverse-theatre-edinburgh/

Photo Credit: Greg Macvean

Hitch Hike to Hell

Written by John Buckley

Directed by Irvine Berwick

Ah, the exploitation genre of cinema. A bounty of films which attempt success, or creativity, through touchy, niche or even lurid events and narratives. They often range from B-movie schlock to the entertaining and even impressive in design, to the downright absurdly offensive in how little hindsight the filmmakers take into consideration. Then there are these middle-ground ones; the attempted video nasties which can’t even get their hands dirty.

Borrowing heavily, chiefly from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, and of course, notorious pieces of rape-revenge and hitchhiking sub-genres (The Last House on the Left, The Hitch-HikerIrvin Berwick and John Buckley had an image for Hitchhike to Hell, an exploitative movie depicting the rape and murder of women who run away from home. Guising it with the ‘moral’ compass circulating in America at the time, of young girls leaving conservative (even abusive) homes and finding themselves assaulted by men on the highways.

After his sister flees the family home, devastating his mother, Howard cannot comprehend why anyone would choose to run away from home and ‘hurt’ their parents. This includes those leaving genuine life-threatening, abusive homes, and in the film’s most teeth-gritting scene, a fourteen-year-old runaway. Working as a laundromat deliveryman, Howard begins a life of picking up hitchhikers, and ‘punishing’ them for their cruel actions.

Arrow Film’s dedication to re-releasing films is a triumph, with successes in bringing treasures to the public and breathing fresh life into undead classics. Here though, they’ve managed an impressive feat – producing a 30-minute documentary extra and further piece, Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas which far exceed the film in terms of production, intent and even lampoon Buckley’s flaccid attempt at concealing his bias towards women.

Even more staggering is that while Harold’s overall performance redeems paint drying, the writing behind this Bates-light character contains relative decency with a slow, categorical depiction of a suffocating mother-son relationship, at least substantially for films of this ilk. Robert Gribbin’s Howard, who flips so frequently from good Samaritan to serial killer in the mere mention of family problems encroaches on ludicrous in depiction. Whereas the amateur performances from the women he abducts make for an unsettling realness to the crimes, Gribbin’s ‘turmoil’ at his actions and his love for his ‘Mamma’ feels hollow. By no means, in-depth, or even redemptive, Berwick’s direction at least seems to attempt multiple dimensions to the narrative, with Russel Johnson turning in the only decent performance as Captain J.W. Shaw.

Hitchhike to Hell fails to delve into the depravity others within the genre submerge themselves. Is this a positive? Not necessarily. While it means we thankfully abstain from morose depictions of sexual violence, it trivialises the matter with how little care is taken. The depictions of rape, set to hideously inappropriate music, become comedic in poor acting and tone, and this isn’t A Clockwork Orange, these score choices are not the decisions made for shock or atmospheric tone, there’s just no thought process here at all. 

Hitchhike to Hell tries capitalising on the exploitation genre it so desperately wants to be a part of but fails to be, and in failure brands itself as even worse a film by its inability to go that extra mile, to be creative or obscene. It commits a cardinal sin of any exploitation film – it’s dull – and for all the things of which it could have been guilty, this is perhaps the worst. While Arrow has once more released a well-maintained cut of the film, keeping the scratches, grit and grime of the film’s footage, it’s one of the video ‘nasties’ which should have been left at the roadside.

Available on Blu-ray now.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/hitch-hike-to-hell/

Catch – 22 – The Biscuit Factory

Written by Joseph Heller

Directed by Hannah Bradley

Insidiously paradoxical, Captain Yossarian (Yo-Yo) finds himself confined by the titular catch of the airforce: those who are compos mentis enough to recognise the dangers of flying are sane enough to pass the medical. Which unfortunately means playing insane isn’t an option, as only the loons would put themselves forward to fly. Joseph Heller’s satirical war-drama Catch-22 surrounds itself in miscommunications and the improbable, so who better to tackle this than Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group?

Notoriously difficult, Heller’s Catch-22 claims the dignity of various adaptations which fail to grasp the nuances of balancing pathos which lacerating satire. A starkly timeless narrative, with nightmarish complexities surrounding bureaucracy, it primarily lampoons military narcissism and economics. In truth, it’s a text which reads far more impressively than it is often performed, then again, have EGTG ever been ones to shy from a challenge?

Evidently, director Hannah Bradley, along with Assistant director Hannah Fitzpatrick, has a firm grip on the structure of the production, and a deep care for the original novel. Honing in on the ironic elements, knowing this can instil a wider range of investment within a limited timescale, Bradley encourages performers to capitalise on people remembering humorous or big characters clearer than subtle performances.

And what a plethora to remember, without neglecting others, huge praise needs to be spoken for Gordon Houston, Richard Godden and Joshua McDiarmid’s performances, with extra kudos on offer to Bethany Cunningham who takes the smaller nursing role and makes it entirely her own. Bradley’s decision to have a larger representative production works beyond mere diversity, the chorus of female performers add to the flavour of scenes, Erini Stamkou pushing the psychotic extremes of American G.I’s fears over ‘others’ to the extreme.

Carrying a lengthy production, Houston achieves a precise level of defiance against the system, yet is also broken by its repetitious assaults to his body, psyche and spirit. He has a balance of over-zealous exasperation, channelling sensationally British comedy stars. He’s enthralling, drawing out the best of others, and matching wits with the more experienced performers of EGTG. The inevitability of death, a fascination of Heller’s, Yossarian is cast in a shadow of his follower, regardless of where he may venture.

One such wit, that of Godden, whose multiple performances build to a side-splitting rendition of a physiatrist in need of examination is a short, but paramount scene to the success of the production. Not all about the gallows humour, Cunningham and Dimitri Woods’ Chaplain crash the violent realities of war onto the stage. Woods’ performance grows in time, at first, it seems delicate, but an iron core is drawn out, with some soft-hearted humour cladding the character and representing the text’s loss of religious faith rather beautifully. Bolstering his part by the fact his primary role, like Houston, is one which never alters into secondary or tertiary parts, which is sadly where some performances flounce.

This becomes particularly evident with time shifts, especially when performers take on two-separate roles within minutes of each other. There needs to be a distinctly apparent change, which needs to stretch beyond a physical switch for some performers. This can be seen with the epitome of capitalist thrift, Milo Minderbinder. A fascinating character, but Siebken’s other, much smaller parts, can’t measure to the same quality. Free to exaggerate characters, the cast can become too large, too reliant on simple physical characteristics, losing an intimacy or recognition with the audience.

It’s an intrinsic issue with the text, valiant as their attempt is, a cast of fourteen, regardless of talent, will find a struggle in representing such a high volume of characters. It makes for messy moments, which tangle themselves up in what has been a wonderfully weaved web of understanding. Untangling one issue, that of how to stage a piece like this has been methodically thought through.

The Biscuit Factory, a sensational venue which deserves greater recognition, is the prime setting for Bradley’s decision to assail us into the action. Thrust staging creates awkward situations, but a testament to the thought process behind Catch-22, there is little question that a seat anywhere would offer a clear viewing. What’s more, going beyond simple seating, Bradley’s concept of placing us within the confines of the famous B-25windows captures ensnaring claustrophobia, brilliantly designed by Chris Allan and Michael Mulligan.

Aiding immensely in this transition, particularly to separate scenes, or the passing of time is Gordon Hughe’s seamless lighting design. Few of the transitions are pronounced, rather they reinforce the emotion of a scene without detracting from performers, complimentary in execution. Whether this is bathing the cold, unfeeling concrete of The Biscuit Factory in the lurid verdure of madness, or a stark rose of passion, it’s impressive world-building.

The impotence of language laces through the production, from the obvious censorships of Washington Irving to how language can circumvent logic, it’s clear how much of a grasp on Catch 22 Bradley and EGTG have. This alone is a testament to the theatre companies ability with fathomable shows, which they stage in ways others would turn from, in venues many wouldn’t consider. Catch-22 is by no means an easy watch, though, by no fault of the team, its errors lie within Heller’s engorgement of the character roster and his overlapping motifs and words. What Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group are performing at this moment is one of the closest adaptations, while being so inherently different, that there is no doubt Heller would be proud of its creative impossibility and is an absolute must-watch.

Catch – 22 runs at The Biscuit Factory until Saturday November 16th. Tickets are available from: https://theegtg.com/2019/08/30/catch-22/