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

Prism – King’s Theatre

Written & Directed by Terry Johnson

Based on the life of Jack Cardiff

Entire artistry in its own right, the conduction of light by Jack Cardiff would define a method of cinematography which pervades the artform to this day. The Red ShoesThe African Queen and The Black Rose, there is scarcely a shred of celluloid which at one point hasn’t had some kind of inspiration from this man. Terry Johnson’s Prism allows the star of stage and screen Robert Lindsay to capture a man who would dedicate his career to capturing the right angle of Hollywood’s finest, and how in his later life Alzheimer’s would cast his recollection further and further back into these sepia-tinted days of showbiz.

Shackling ourselves to a chain of memories born of anxieties, love, regret and experience, we place a tremendous deal of what defines the ‘self’ into the composite of how we evaluate our lives. What then, when the cruellest form of affliction, dementia, early on-set or age-related, loosens these tethers and slowly ebbs away our most recent memories, placing us firmly in a comforting, if distant past? This is Johnson’s intention with Prism, to offer a glimpse into the closing scenes of Cardiff’s life, just before the credits begin to roll. 

In essence, a biographical (if artistic) production places itself into the hands of its principal performer. In Robert Lindsay, there is not a qualm to locate. His charm is silky, yes, but his emotional control over the condition is as approachable as it is painful in depiction. Ironically, though the metaphor wouldn’t be lost on Cardiff – there is a spectrum of emotion, a Prism if you will allow. In his closing moments, the tiniest nuance of detail leads to a crushing realisation – something which, for Cardiff, is worse than losing his memory, and once we realise that Lindsay has been laying the groundwork for this through the second half, it’s aching to comprehend.

Unafraid of the industries nature, Terry Johnston’s writing refrains from treating Cardiff as an untouchable treasure, indeed taking liberties which would perhaps be appropriate for the role. Jokes of the infamous casting couch, while certainly a distasteful reference, would tragically be common practice. The humour, well-written, also slips in a few gags which roll eyes for their age, but again, this would be correct for Cardiff’s character. Where Johnston’s writing balances this humour, and it takes a while to do so, is in the demonstration of dementia’s influence beyond the individual sufferer. Something Johnston takes partial credit for, but Fitzgerald rightfully claims a deal more.

Nicola or Katie (Katharine Hepburn) as Cardiff fails to remember which, at first is an identifiable role, a wife standing beside her partner, who openly displays the frustrations and loneliness of dealing with a loved one suffering from the condition. The thought of being a blank face, to someone you have shared a life with, is disheartening to even imagine, yet somehow Fitzgerald communicates a tremendous deal while saying little. Taking on the role of her predecessor, the apparent love of Cardiff’s life, is a metamorphosis, capturing Hepburn’s diction, as well as her timeless class.

Echoes of the past dance in the background, references of the days Cardiff regresses towards as the condition worsens. Prism is arguably for the cinephiles more so than the theatrical crowd, and while it is indeed possible for fans of one to respect the other, there is such depth in the knowledge of filmmaking – from the jabs at aspect ratio, to references of actors inability or habits, the production has a definitive screen quality to its DNA.

In an expedition of Cardiff’s history, the location of Prism takes unique transitions to expand the horizons beyond simplistic storytelling. In the closing of act one, Tim Shortall’s design feels excessive, but for the second its purpose is evident. With cinema at its heart, Ian William Galloway’s video design is where the set excels. Six portraits of cinema’s defining performers (minus Bette Davis…) enhance the mise en scène with small quirks, movements and tricks. If possible, tear your eyes away from Lindsay’s performance, and you may spot a theatrical ‘Easter egg’ of cinematic inspiration.

While Lindsay beams out in technicolour, Victoria Blunt and Oliver Hembrough find themselves squarely in the tones of Kinemacolor, far from feeble, but without the range Lindsay and Fitzgerald offer. Principally this lies within the narrative, Johnson’s writing paints Blunts character on the edges of sitcom territory, with a shoehorning of drama in the second act for us to feel sympathy, trouble being it loses out to our emotional investment in Lindsay. Blunt’s brief spell as Monroe, while a caricature, is dripping with delivery, decadent and quite stirring in all the right ways.

Filmstrip offers a glimpse of immortality for the chosen few, though it will never stand the test of our true marker – time. Nailing a performance which one will seek to capture for an age, Lindsay pays Cardiff in kind, reminding us of his immeasurable talents, eventually succumbing to a callous condition. As these timeless classics of film fade ever more into obscurity, they are a reminder that all good things must end; paintings will tarnish, whiskey dries and the light which Cardiff so exquisitely framed fades. Prism offers a range of artistic celebration, and this is a love letter from the stage to the big screen.

Runs at The King’s Theatre until Saturday November 2nd. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/prism

Photo Credit – Manuel Harlan Video Credit – Capital Theatres