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

The Breadwinner

Directed by Nora Twomey

Written by Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis

Gloriously direct, “The Breadwinner” (2017) turns the patriarchal trope of a sole provider into an unflinching tale of a young Afghan girl’s determination, fear and resilience under Taliban rule in 2001. Based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling novel, who returns to write the screenplay, “The Breadwinner” is a gut-wrenching reminder of the violence that women experience under the shadow of modern histories vilest patriarchal systems.

As the boys play solider, it is women who endure, women who spend their days attempting to find semblance amidst the chaos. Both the original novel and the screenplay have been written by Deborah Ellis, with the screenplay in part co-written with Anita Doron. With such a wealth of female filmmakers behind the film’s production, it’s little wonder how “The Breadwinner” manages to encapsulate female oppression from the most tyrannical of archaic patriarchies for verdantly. More importantly, how it refuses to victimise these mothers and daughters, instead, matching the strength they display with the losses they suffer.

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Opening-up with concerns over modern-day political coups, Western interference in the East and the severe imposition of female ‘modesty’, Twomey rejects an outright statement on the religious practises of a culture with which she is not a member. It’s a respectful opener, rife with imagery which speaks more than the words do, like America and Britain’s recent history in the region does not need to be stated when the bombastic annihilations of colour illustrate the point enough.

Reversing the term ‘breadwinner’, in which our first thoughts are of a man, usually suited, for some reason in fifties stylings, as the primary caregiver for the family. In Kabul, a woman isn’t in this role, unless her husband, brother’s, cousins or any other man in the family have died, left or are in prison. After her father Nurullah is taken to prison for hiding books in the floorboards, teaching his daughters, Parvana finds herself the breadwinner for her sick mother, her older sister and baby brother. That is of course after she sheds her headscarf, her hair and disguises herself as a boy. With her newfound ‘freedom’, Parvana discovers that “when you’re a boy you can go anywhere you like”, as suddenly she can hold her head high, walk and purchase goods, all with less fear of scrutiny. Here, Saara Chaudry‘s voice acting moves from the sombre tones to a jovial child who is unearthing the brief joys in life, in an otherwise difficult lifestyle.

And this power of the written word, a resentment from educated women, has references which you can locate in Nora Twomey’s direction and animation. The tool which Parvana’s parents use to educate their daughters, much to the disarray of the Taliban, a storybook, a simple, harmless storybook which offers key weapons in the fight of oppression: imagination and freedom, which offer liberation. Mentioned as a writer, Laara Sadiq’s role as such an educated mother, Fattema is soft-spoken, which as the stakes grow higher, morphs into a matriarchal powerhouse of desperation – a woman for who no man will tie-down, even when threatened at knifepoint, beaten or any other atrocities she suffers in the film.

Liberating a profound level of freedom with the text, Executive producer Angelina Jolie works alongside Ellis and Twomey to reinforce the film’s stringency to the truth. The beating we see Fattema endure, the threats of ‘marriage at her age’, sexual violence, arranged marriages and abuse of both daughters, “The Breadwinner”, regardless of its comedic moments, playful characters or visuals does not shy from authenticity.

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So please take heed, especially from an advocate of children’s cinema, that “The Breadwinner” is not a children’s film. It’s the antithesis of animation’s place as a respectful genre in the cinematic field. Though, I would implore anyone, that if they sufficiently trust their children are mature enough to watch this film, please encourage them to do so. Stripping back the otherness of cinema, “The Breadwinner” places us into the eyes of children in a culture, in a world which we in Western society only ever see through media’s altered vision. Canadian activist Ellis crafts “The Breadwinner” as starkly human, but nevertheless, it is a warming film of family, it will connect with you regardless of nationality, or at the very least we would hope it does. At its most beautiful, this film is a masterpiece in animation which deserves praise for its manipulation of light, layers and dramatic-symbolic storytelling.

Any readers familiar with Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s previous titles, “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “The Song of the Sea” (2014) will have expectations of ‘The Breadwinner’s’ animation style. A wholly unique form than what s presently on offer from the large studios, and even the independents. What Twomey’s style loses in-depth, remaining in the two-dimensional construct the likes Dreamworks and Disney have since abandoned, she makes up for with a palette of immense colour, transforming Kabut into a rich canvas. Injecting the culture with a zest we are unfamiliar with, the landscape a breath of colour propels it into significance, even the darker moments capture the futility of the task ahead for the family with their foreboding monochromatic shadows.

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Quite the opposite, where shadow is the plaything of reality, ‘The Breadwinner’ delves into the cultural stories of Kabul and the Middle East. Snippets of pure escapist storytelling, these blissfully animated segments are awe-inspiring, with a unique blending of multiple formats. They are animated, maintaining Twomay’s two-dimensional style, but they have layers. Almost puppet-like, certainly origami-inspired, as the symbolic jaguars and wolves descend against the young boy, a reminder of so many claimed by war. Ellis so heart-achingly illustrates the maternal vein of the narrative, that it is put upon young Parvana, her mother and sister to keep the family going, their personas reflecting the stories she tells her young brother.

Purposely ambiguous, the film’s ending is bitter-sweet, though refrains from outright misery. “The Breadwinner” earns a spot as a monumentally important piece within the last decade, not only for having a team primarily made up of women, but also for Twomey’s championing a genre which suffers from a hugely lacking diversity. As animation slowly gains a foothold with dramatic representation’s, Hollywood would do well to remember the roots of the genre with the ink-artists of Walt Disney, all women, whose storytelling capabilities continue to manifest limitless story-potentials in ways other film-forms cannot.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2019/11/19/itol-top-50-films-of-the-decade-entry-no-32-the-breadwinner/

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/