Daphne, or Hellfire

Writer: Isla Cowan

Director: Avigail Tlalim

Some might find familiarity in the tale of Apollo & Daphne, at the very least, a spark of recognition could occur with the idea of a young woman, a nymph, surrendering her flesh into bark, transforming into a tree to avoid Apollo’s amorous assault. Daphne, Or Hellfire is a new script from Isla Cowan, a rising Scottish playwright who aims to raise Daphne from the folly of mythology, instilling her with a core of feminism and tie the myth into our blindness towards climate change.

A young couple, hopelessly romantic, disgustingly so, Daphne has her career, as well as a passion for ecological studies, landscaping and promoting our ignorance of climate change. Apollo, dashing as ever, is a young marketing guru, who just so happens to be working with a housing development. A twisted parable for the 21st century, Cowan drags Daphne and Apollo from a world of Gods, acropolises and Ambrosia, into a realm of capitalism, property and rice-pudding.

We’ll say this, while other productions dance around the subject of our planets violation at the hands of everyday capitalism, Cowan’s work takes no interest in a soft approach. It’s a refreshingly volatile piece, which has intention behind the writing. There is no sugar coating or skirting the issue – Daphne, Or Hellfire is an impactful production which refuses to bow to ease of access, keeping its source material close to the vein of the story, while wrapping it in a powerful eco-feminist coating. In doing so, cracks occur in the overall neatness of the show.

An issue lies with Apollo’s depiction. Taking from his inspiration, Apollo is meant to come across as brash, boastful and encapsulating everyday attitudes surrounding the environment and waste. When in reality, Patrick Errington’s Apollo is just too damned nice. He comes across as borderline boastful, but all too mortal. Enabling a connection with the audience, who can sympathise with Apollo’s protestations at recycling, rejected gifts and pursuing a career, Errington is too human, too easy to understand with and at times, places Daphne as the frustrating of the two.

A powerhouse on stage, Cowan’s conviction in her performance is as strong as her writing. It takes time for a presence to build, but this is in line with the character as Daphne emerges from the shadow of her partner and father’s constant pressure. By the finale, Cowan’s physicality, seething with a suppressed, is impressive, intimidating and demonstrates her performance capability along with her writing. Daphne is no more a nymph of legend, she is a woman. Proud, determined but most importantly – human.

How fitting, that in the original mythos, it is an arrow of lead which begins Daphne’s downfall from fierce nymph, and here it is the lead-laden air we breathe in which Daphne chooses her form to be at one with the earth. Cowan’s writing is at most impressive here, subverting the narrative she adapts it from, taking Daphne’s cry for help and morphing it into the empowerment of femininity, tying it to her relationship with the earth. If anything, it’s painful to realise that a portion of the script is perhaps too sharp for a general audience, who most likely miss out on the nuances of these portions of the script.

Here, is both the heel and strength of Daphne, or Hellfire. It’s a masterful piece of poetic writing from a new playwright, which leans heavily on ambitions, risks alienating an audience. Cowan is a playwright that any in Scotland would do well to keep an eye too, channelling her very own hellfire to scorch the earth, her passion evident, her aggression tightened into her pen.

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/

The Vagina Monologues – Festival Theatre, The Studio

Play by Eve Ensler

Information relating to the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Charity can be found at their website: https://www.ercc.scot

Say it with me everyone: “Vagina”. Say it even louder for the men in the back. The Vagina Monologues, for all its criticism, may be one of the most influential theatrical texts ever put into production. There’s a reason why two decades later it is still built upon. July 7th saw a reading of Eve Ensler’s episodic play which looks into female body image, sexual experiences (consensual and non), sex work and a variety of other topics. Monologues from the play focus on sexual assault, comfort women and body image are given a platform in aid of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre, with 100% of all profits benefiting the charity.

Despite a mere two weeks rehearsal time, the five performers onstage channel a staggering level of commitment, professionalism and heart. Their performances are nothing short of heart-wrenching. Not only because of their embedded talents, but a tremendous amount lies in the fact that these women aren’t acting, despite the accents, the laughs and the characters. The stories they are telling, the cause they are hosting this evening for – is their lives.

In aid of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre, the reading is compressed into appropriate material to remain on subject. There’s a clever balance of topic foundation, easing those unfamiliar before communicating the facts, hatreds and degeneracy of reality. For over forty years, ERCC continues to provide emotional, mental and practical support for women, non-binary, young people and the trans community. As if this service wasn’t enough, they engage with a plethora of preventative discussion, information and much-sought advocacy for those who have experienced sexual violence at any time in their life.

Every year, a new ‘chapter’ is added into The Vagina Monologues following the inspiration day known as V-Day. In 2006, a segment on Comfort Women was added, this is what closes out our performance – tightening the link between the chosen text and tonight’s charity. Last year TIME magazine tore open a subject many prefer to forget, the ‘punishment’ many women faced following the Second World War. The sequence is nothing short of a mountainous emotional smack of truth. All of the frustrations and agony women suffer placed on the floor in-front of us with the utterance “now what”. Anyone who has given their time for the evening has done something noteworthy, from the performers to the lighting operators and of course, the front of the house.

A heap of gratitude is to be given to Capital Theatres and Linda from customer service who listened to one women’s cry of: “I’m angry, and I need to do something about this”. Help is precisely what we in a creative community can strive to do. We have a position of accessibility, a presence to mobilise and a space to offer those who not only have a production to stage, but a message to encourage and even better a charity to empower.

Productions like these make you want to write. They make you want to type furiously for days and days and weeks and years until something, anything is done. There’s only so far outrage can extend before action is the response. Because here’s the secret. People are tired. They’re tired of rape culture, rape jokes and judicial decisions on what constitutes rape. We’re tired of putting our keys between our knuckles on a late walk home. Tired of seeing wealthy, ‘good family’ men walk free, and we’re beyond exhausted of the shaming, punishment and hushed words around women who courageously come forward.

I use the term ‘we’ rather than women because it is we. It’s you, me and everyone you know. This evening isn’t only about performance. It’s a rallying call that after all this time, we still need to have charity evenings like this. One day, The Vagina Monologues will (hopefully) stage its performances for history, rather than to protect the future. It will be staged as a way to remind ourselves what we fought for, instead of what we are still fighting for.

Until then, dig deep. Donate your time, your money and offer your support to the likes of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre. Sometimes it isn’t all about the money. You can help challenge abusive behaviour, encourage and support others to speak out – but most importantly to believe those who come to you disclosing sexual violence. This evening isn’t solely about the harrows of life, but the joys in coming together to establish a conversation. From a women’s first period, to the thrill in discovering her body – and the insecurities around this. You’ll be left curious, angry, empowered, enraged and have had a few chuckles too.

And if, like these five young women you are able – perform. Write, sing, shriek, holler, dance – do whatever we can to keep these stories alive and in the faces of those who would rather they faded into obscurity. That’s precisely what an archaic system would like – silence. So, let’s say it one last time: “Vagina”, because nothing upsets the Patriarchy quite like a pussy which roars.