Monday was supposed to be my night off — it’s the one night of the Festival in which I wasn’t committed to performing in a show — but, impulsively, I decided to head out to catch the 10pm showing of this one.
There’s a couple of reasons for this — but mainly, because this is an instance in which I know the source material with some intimacy. In fact — I’ve been trying to avoid talking about my own show, but I think I simply can’t avoid it in this instance — both this show and My Mother Told Me are based on parts of the Mabinogion.
Likewise, there’s some similarity between the two pieces — both revolve around protagonists that are, essentially, blank slates — characters who set out into the world with no knowledge of what to expect, and their discoveries mirror, to some degree, our own.
Let’s be clear — I am in love with this script. For two reasons. The first is, simply put, its composition. It’s an odd mixture of modern and archaic, and there’s a few unpleasantly jarring word choices — but generally, this is a text that chooses the unusual word, as opposed to the expected one. The pleasure of startling language is one of the great reasons that I love this form.
And then, there’s the reason that I love this content. Nearly all of the shows that I’ve seen this Festival revolve around relationships, joking about them or whining about them or what have you, and that’s a bit of a slog for me. But this is a show that opens with a woman describing her dim memories of being flowers. Of crawling through the dirt and being drenched in nectar. Oh, fuck yes — this is precisely one of the things that I love about fantasy writing. She is Not Like Us. And the play plunges into that mystery to a degree that The Selkie didn’t even attempt. On some heady level, yes, that’s interesting because it helps us define what it means to be human — but on a more primal level, one I can’t articulate so well, I’m fascinated by the otherness of this kind of thing. This is a show that gets what magic is — a disturbance of the natural order; and therefore something horrific, frightening, even sickening at times. It is, quite literally, the definition of unnatural. And that’s intensely compelling to me.
From what I’ve heard, this is a show that’s been getting some very impressive reviews, and some less impressive audience numbers. Most seem to be praising the performance, and criticizing the script. I’m going to go ahead and say that I suspect that I’m in pretty much diametric opposition to the others on this; I love the script, but I have some pretty critical issues with the performance.
Here’s the thing; I’ve had the extreme displeasure, over the years, of witnessing some seriously abusive relationships. Moreover, I saw the show with someone who, I’m sorry to say, has a lot of experience with abuse, from a number of different angles. I won’t speculate on the experiences of either the writer or the performer — I know nothing about either — but I wll note that both of us asserted, strenuously — her far more so than me — that this performance simply didn’t ring true. The actress wails; she moans; she leans forward and clutches herself; her voice shakes with barely concealed emotion.
Had I been the director of this show, I would have guided her towards something else, something far less histrionic; but rather, to that coldness, to that terrible, numb detachment that I’ve witnessed in those that have lived through this kind of thing.
The thing is — and this is the reason I feel compelled to raise this in a review — this isn’t solely an aesthetic question, but a moral one. Here’s what the show description (presumably composed by the writer/producer) says:
“Bloddeuwedd is a solo story play, loosely based on an ancient Welsh legend about a woman made out of flowers, who, in the midst of a brutally sadistic (and arranged) marriage, takes a lover and undergoes a kind of sexual awakening.”
That’s not my perception of this story at all. This is the story of a man who takes a woman — not simply a woman, but something new, something fresh and strange and strangely beautiful — and sets out to destroy her; and he succeeds. He destroys her as a moral being. If she begins by talking about the ecstasy of the sensation of sunlight, she ends with her transformation into a predator, not just physically but spiritually. This is, for me, as a man of faith, the ultimate horror: the story, not of the destruction of a woman’s body, but the destruction of her soul. I’m sure that there’s some school of second-wave feminism that could regard this as some sort of triumph, but to be totally honest, the fact that someone could characterize the action of this play as a “sexual awakening” makes me kind of sick.
(Let’s establish, before moving on, that she’s an excellent actress, and more importantly a very controlled and disciplined one. My beef here is with the choice made, the approach chosen, not with her craftsmanship as a performer.)
This is tied into the acting, in the respect that I think that, had a real sense of detachment been cultivated and sustained — well, first of all, that would have been much more chilling; to hear the events she described, described without emotion, would have caused them to hit us far more dramatically. But furthermore, they would have emphasized the tragedy of her ultimate fate. Whereas now, I can’t escape the uneasy sense that this is being portrayed as a kind of dark triumph.
…and with that, we have skated so far outside of the aesthetic that we are firmly in the realm of my own personal prejudice. And I conclude on the note that this show upset both of us; and upset us to the point that we spent the better part of an hour arguing, angrily, intensely, about both the content and execution of the show.
…and if that isn’t the definition of great art? I don’t know what is. This is, unquestionably, my favorite show of the Festival thus far.