Review: 15 HEROINES, Jermyn Street Theatre Online

The theatre brings a brave and bold project to the digital stage

By: Nov. 09, 2020
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Review: 15 HEROINES, Jermyn Street Theatre Online

Review: 15 HEROINES, Jermyn Street Theatre Online 15 Heroines is a major new digital project by Jermyn Street Theatre in collaboration with Digital Theatre Plus. Taking Ovid's Heroides as inspiration, it presents 15 short plays in three defined sequences (The War, The Labyrinth, The Desert) of around 80 minutes each.

Reaching back across thousands of years and into the cultures of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa, the heroines are rehabilitated and placed in a modern setting. The running order may have changed to group the women into similar types (notably those concerned with the Trojan War), but their stories are the same.

The locations are interesting. We are often in intimate rooms (bedrooms, sitting rooms, kitchens) where the woman traditionally rules the house. Sometimes we are in a more public place, and projections may suggest an exterior we can hear but not see. We are in the present time with sex, swearing, and sisterhood.

This is a female- and non-binary-led project (15 actors, 15 writers), which takes a definite feminist slant on the Greek myths. Ovid's work itself has been constantly translated and reinterpreted through the years, whether in rhyme or not - none of the playwrights in 15 Heroines choose to present their pieces in rhyme - so it is right and proper that these women are now relevant and apposite to now. These are the women who challenge convention and rattle the cage of tradition.

There are many themes of note across the three sections: in several cases, the characters remove wigs as if to shed a skin or reveal a hidden facet to their personality; there are curses, threats, and occasional outbursts of frustration; visions and premonitions reoccur across several stories; the women are quick-witted and powerful even when in a position of servitude or submission.

Invisible men who do not deserve the love and loyalty of the women who wait for them are firmly in the wings. There is talk of forced marriages or relationships; a constant theme of prisons (whether real or imaginary); a sense of survival; aristocracy (we have queens, princesses, and daughters of gods) and authority; the loss of innocence; the growth of life and children; and wine and drinking.

In The War, the women In Focus are Laodamia, Oenone, Briseis, Hermione, and Penelope. Charlotte Jones's Our Own Private Love Island presents a girlish Laodamia (played by Sophia Eleni) in a pink bedroom strewn with fairy lights, worried about her premonition that her husband will die if he is the first to invade Trojan land. Clinging to her laptop and feverishly devouring her social media and gossip mags, she moves between kittenish flirting and quiet desperation in her video message to the ships set to invade.

Lettie Precious's The Cost of Red Wine presents Oenone (played by Ann Ogbomo), the discarded mistress of the mighty Paris, set within his removal boxes as he is about to move out, angry and full of fight and fury. Abi Zakarian's Perfect Myth Allegory showcases Briseis (played by Jemima Rooper), holding her own set of cards and coolly phoning for a car to escape her fate as captive or concubine.

Sabrina Mahfouz's Will You takes the story of Hermione, Helen's child (played by Rebekah Murrell), being interviewed by police, smoothly making her own accusation, and asking for justice, without shame or rancour. Finally, in Hannah Khalil's Watching the Grass Grow, Penelope (played by Gemma Whelan) is tidying up the home and waiting for husband Ulysses to come back from working away during the pandemic.

Moving on to The Labyrinth, the women spotlighted are Ariadne, Phaedra, Phyllis, Hypsipyle, and Medea. They are united by the men who have let them down - Theseus and Jason - and by their own ambition. In String, by Bryony Lavery, we meet Ariadne (played by Patsy Ferran), a nervous girl pulling along a suitcase and running away from something, despite being tethered back to where she comes from. Her sister Phaedra (played by Doña Croll) defends her unsuitable longing for her stepson in Timberlake Wertenbaker's Pity the Monster, with pride and contempt.

I'm Still Burning, by Samantha Ellis, takes the myth of Phyllis (played by Nathalie Armin) who takes root, literally, seizing control of her own destiny, stating "I burst into blossom with joy/as he cannot have me now". Natalie Haynes's Knew I Should Have gives Hypsipyle (played by Olivia Williams) a laptop and an email to write to her unfaithful husband at her office desk.

Medea (played by Nadine Marshall) faces a terrible task in Juliet Giles Romero's The Gift, as she wrestles with her conscience surrounded by her children's toys, with her father's words in her head ("we are not barbarians"). There are monsters galore in this segment, notably the Minotaur and Medusa, who guarded the golden fleece. Also monsters in the persons of the women we see, if we take their actions (curses and revenges) as monstrous.

In The Desert, we meet Deinaria, Dido, Canace, Hypermestra, and Sappho. This seems the least unified group, and the most disparate in individual style. April De Angelis's The Striker sees Deinaria (played by Indra Ové) as the wife of a top footballer having an affair on a reality show, as she tells us over wine and olives at a party. In The Choice, by Stella Duffy, we are in a moment of quiet with Dido (played by Rosalind Eleazar) as she washes and chats about hunting, Carthage, and the end she faces.

Canace (played by Eleanor Tomlinson) faces an unheard interviewer on a TV chat show in Isley Lynn's A Good Story, starting with giggles and ending with a shield of steely resignation at the sacrifice her romantic decision caused. Girl on Fire, by Chinonyerem Odimba, places Hypermestra (played by Nicholle Cherrie) on a wooden bench by a tray of unlit candles on the eve of her trial, as we share in her own tragedy. Finally, Sappho (played by Martina Laird), in Lorna French's I See You Now, is at her dressing table, almost a pathetic figure at times as she struggles to face the choice which left her abandoned.

Directed by the marvellous trio of Adjoa Andoh, Cat Robey and Tom Littler, and lit by Johanna Town, these plays are urgent, professional, engaging and beautifully filmed. The designers (Emily Stuart, Jessie McKenzie, and Louie Whitmore) have conjured up spaces which enhance rather than distract the plays they decorate. Sound designers Nicola Chang and Max Pappenheim evoke both ancient and modern worlds in their occasional musical motifs and sound effects.

The filming itself a huge step up from the two rehearsed readings and the 12-hour The Odyssey previously presented by Jermyn Street Theatre. Where they were filmed with home webcams, 15 Heroines is professionally designed and directed for video, merging theatre and film to create a major piece. I found it worked as individual segments, as themed collections, or as one full project. Close-ups pull us in, simple settings centre our attention, but the words and their delivery are the most important in these beautifully written dramatic monologues.

15 Heroines is streaming from until 14 November at 3pm and 7.30pm.

The War: 9 November, 7.30pm; 12 November 7.30pm and 14 November 3pm. The Labyrinth: 10 November, 7.30pm; 12 November, 3pm; 14 November, 7.30pm. The Desert: 10 November, 3pm; 11 November, 7.30pm; 13 November, 7.30pm. Book tickets at from £20.

Image credit: Marc Brenner/Shonay Shote


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