Review: WOMAN AT POINT ZERO, Royal Opera House

Extraordinary show based on seminal novel, beautiful and brutal in equal measure

By: Jun. 29, 2023
Review: WOMAN AT POINT ZERO, Royal Opera House
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Review: WOMAN AT POINT ZERO, Royal Opera House “The Patriarchy” can be a wince-inducing phrase for men of a certain age (yes, you’re not wrong - mine). By any objective measure, women have never had it so good. Control of their fertility and sexuality, increasing economic power and a growing presence in the public sphere. You don’t need to go back to the 1880s (never mind 1880 BCE), the 1980s will do for a comparison of how things were and how different they are now.

Of course, that’s a trite and narrow summation. Women around the world are brutally suppressed by culture and politics, modern slavery just the tip of an iceberg of thwarted hopes, pain and drudgery. Even in the soi disant enlightened West, women’s rights are under threat and demand what will be an eternal defence against reactionaries hiding their thirst for power behind appeals to tradition or religion. And that’s before we get to the iniquitous impact of a media that pinpoints and then fosters women’s insecurities to sell an impossible vision (especially to young women, those least equipped to deal with it) and wilfully promotes a growing mental health crisis

So LOD Music Theatre’s beautiful, thrilling, terrifying opera / jazz hybrid show is timely and required, a sobering reminder of where we have come from and how much there is still to do. Based on Nawal El Saadawi’s 1975 novel of the same name, Woman At Point Zero tells the life story of an Egyptian woman who refused to be defined by the appalling abuse she suffered at the hands of men who knew that they would never be held accountable for their actions. Blocked from education and the economic independence, she sells the only thing she has - her body - but slowly takes agency over her sex work and ultimately exacts a revenge, embracing her consequent imprisonment as just another version of the life she has always led - a preferable one to boot. 

That synopsis describes a misery-fest, but the power of opera transforms the narrative into one of resilience and hope. Dima Orsho’s extraordinary speaking and singing voice finds depths in Fatma, whose story is told, pain, pleasure and defiance mediated through music and rhythm, opera forcing us to feel as much as to hear. Such a powerhouse performance could easily drown her interlocutor, but Carla Nahadi Bebelegoto wonderfully captures the role of the filmmaker, Sama, who teases the tale out of Fatma, at first confused, then condemnatory and ultimately a confederate in her subject’s struggle. 

Underpinning the sensory assault, Bushra El-Turk’s music directs - no, that’s too strong - leads us into the emotions of the women, its Arabic foundations overlaid with elements of the Western tradition. El-Turk is a Londoner raised by Lebanese parents - but, after hearing her composition, you wouldn’t need to be told. The wonderful acoustics of the redeveloped Linbury Theatre (underlining just how poor sound is in so many theatres) allow the unique variety of instruments under conductor, Kanako Abe, to create an aural dreamscape that I’d vouchsafe is to be found nowhere else in the world. Sure I recognised the accordion, cello and recorder, but the taegum, the duduk and the kamancha?

This moving, important work, delivered in a crisp 55 minutes, leaves you with a thirst to assist in emancipating the billions of women around the world today living lives much like Fatma’s. Video work and soundscapes integrated into the production makes them real and immediate in our minds. But it also lifts the spirit with its aesthetic beauty, its mesmerising marriage of words and music, its confidence and its defiance.       

Woman At Point Zero is part of the Royal Opera House's Engender Festival running until 30 June

 Photo Credit: Camilla Greenwell         


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