Seeking new theatrical content in the culture stunting maze of another lockdown, it’s nice to find some high quality solace online. Jermyn Street Theatre have commissioned a set of new monologues featuring women at the heart of Greek myths, inspired by Ovid’s Heroides. These fifteen heroines are split into three groups of five, spanning legendary dynasties. All have been filmed in a single take on a simple stage adapted to their locations. The editing is kept minimal and the focus is on imagery conjured up by evocative language.
Starting this adventure in The Labyrinth is Ariadne, half-sister of the Minotaur and saviour of Theseus. String is a piece that shifts between science and emotion. Weaving in allusions to characters like Icarus, Bryony Lavery’s script balances the ancient and modern. Patsy Ferran plays Ariadne torn, revelling in her smarts and frustrated at being discarded. She encourages some sympathy for the devil, getting the journey off to an interesting start.
This lively narrative moves smoothly into Phaedra’s chamber. This sister of Ariadne and wife of Theseus addresses her speech to stepson Hippolytus. Addressing the issue of rejection she pushes him to question rigid beliefs about those who are different. In Pity the Monster Timberlake Wertenbaker has crafted a gradual call to arms and dressed in elegant finery, Doña Croll gives an upright performance filled with the power of experience.
The next chapter is I’m Still Burning, full of the righteous anger of Phyllis, a queen who rescued Phaedra and Theseus’ son Demophon. Reflecting on aging, falling in love and being let down, writer Samantha Ellis delves into more spiritual terrain. Nathalie Armin performs in a flowing gown complete with elaborate headpiece with floral accessories. She has filled the expected roles of healer and cook and is also capable of feeling the joy and pain of love. Railing against the politics of men’s portrayals of women, she is compelling and resilient.
Jumping through the generations we move to the office of Hypsipyle. Grandaughter of Ariadne and wife to Jason, who is left stewing at home as he goes in search of the Golden Fleece. She is a sharp queen, spitting out unconfirmed reports of her husband’s exploits. Olivia Williams plays this modern woman, cracking open wine and trying to compose an email, more interested in digging up a rivalry with another woman. In Knew I Should Have Natalie Haynes has interwoven the classical references to ancestors, land and children with amusing clichés about stepmothers and witches.
Finishing with the other side of this fight in The Gift, Medea has now been dropped by Jason despite the help she gave him while getting the Golden Fleece. Now she must confront a new young bride and reclaim ownership of the narrative. Juliet Gilkes Romero writes her as a feisty warrior and Nadine Marshall is a pillar of fury in the incongruous setting of her children’s bedroom. Feeling destructive and fearful she describes the physical and emotional pain of this rejection, planning an escape that will rely on her barbarian roots.
All these speeches have the time and space to breathe and connect. The textual links are clear, while directors Adjoa Andoh, Tom Littler and Cat Robey have freedom to explore variety and symbolism in the staging and movement. Cutting through divides they offer an exciting new interpretation of how these women might have been, yesterday and today.