There are few words that can aptly describe the entire feeling of watching Lela & Co. Words like “disturbing” and “eerie” come to mind, but also “powerful” and “enthralling”. The combination of startlingly accurate and precise stage direction by Jude Christian and the bubblegum causticity of Cordelia Lynn’s script come together to tell the tale of a young girl’s loss of identity – and in many ways, tells the tale of many young girls and their empty selves. Lynn is unflinching in her dissection of women and the stories they tell. Lynn’s script charts the un-voicing of women, and how their stories are continuously distorted by male voices. True to the Royal Court’s ability to find the best new writing talent out there, Cordelia Lynn has crafted a script that soars, and Jude Christian has only managed to make it more than just good.
If you do intend to watch this brilliant production, tread carefully in this review. Half the magic of the play comes from its ability to surprise and thrill in its sharp turns. It begins with what seems like a familiar route, but through the meandering manner of Lynn’s script, a more complex web forms instead. Though this is ostensibly Lela’s story, very little of her life seems to be of her own doing. This is a “monologue” but the voices of men – her father’s, her husband’s, her brother-in-law’s, her chatty lover – continually encroach and interject throughout her story. They are ever present, and hang like a pall over Lela. Women are born to have their lives dictated by the voices of men – they are the beginning and the end, conduits of life and death, but the middle of their lives are ruled by men. Lela’s life pivots on the acts and decisions of the men around her, and they define her.
The staging and set aids the play’s meditation on storytelling, truth and myths. Jabares-Pita’s set is wonderfully used to layer meaning and contradiction atop Lynn’s already packed text. The set is all showbiz and pizzazz – bloody curtains like the in a theatre and black and white striped floors like a sleazy club are the piece’s backdrop. Bright white neon lights, declaring LELA, hover over the stage like in a carnival, and the Man is dressed in a gleaming gold suit reminiscent of 50s game shows and the first glimpse we get of Lela is of a fairy princess. All these little details come to realise a world where only half truths exist, and we are never too sure just how much of it is fabricated.
Literature abounds in examples of women subjected by men into silence – Coetzee’s Disgrace, for example – but there is something thrilling about seeing it brought into physical manifestation in a piece of theatre. Lynn’s script performs the audible and textual stripping away of Lela’s descent – the Man’s sings over her, he distorts the telling of their meeting, and Lela’s grand opening speech of origin (a mythic birth in a mountainous thunderstorm, and a life amidst wild lands) descends into the stutter jerk of a foreign tongue. The magic comes when it is paired with Christian’s brilliant visual direction – the Man strips Lela down, the whirr of the machine of his trade runs roughshod over her attempt at speech, and Lela’s movements for most of the play is restricted to the raised black and white platform (which soon starts to look like a prison cell). In theatre we are able to see Lela’s situation in its physical reality; we don’t just hear her story, but we see it and in the telling, in the acting, her tale becomes true. Of course, theatre is also make-believe, so perhaps we are also asked to consider the actual “truth” of even this entire production.
Katie West was the undoubted star of the show – she is all childlike energy and frenetic movement. She looks like the bird Lela is described as, with a slender, dancing sort of movement. Words tumble out of her mouth so quickly sometimes that it becomes difficult to always discern what she has to say but it also makes you feel like she’s just only now vomiting out everything she’s ever wanted to say, and must do it now before her chance is taken away. She is both strength and fragility made manifest. What was very disconcerting though was the bleakness of her life (she doesn’t understand it but we do) counterpointed against the childlike tone of her voice, giggles and the cheeky grin the she wears as a mask. A well of darkeness – probably deeper than even the audience realises – hangs about, unseen but felt in the obtuse references to her situation. Mumeni was not to be outshone though: he has a chameleon way about him, shifting between the various male roles onstage. How does he manage to go from the railing father to the slick brother-in-law with such a spirit of variety? It was so satisfying to feel the difference, but also the similar inherent maleness of all the men – all men are varied but also not.
Feels extremely bleak, doesn’t it? The play’s optimistic beginning darkens slowly then all at once, and the result is a disturbing story of a woman caught in the middle of destruction of herself, as well as her wartorn country. But, as I hinted at the beginning of this review, the redemption of this production lay in the unyielding strength of Lela herself. Lynn’s text was courageous, and the mettle that lies behind the broken facade of Lela’s history brought texture to what might have otherwise been an intolerably dreary production to watch. Full of resonances of Angela Carter and Carol Churchill, Lela reminds a little of Hamlet’s Gertrude and Ophelia: women caught in the machinations of the men around them. They are weak, but they are also powerful in their determination to wrestle their fates from the world.
Lynn doesn’t leave Lela to die though, and instead goes a step futher and persists in telling her tale. She loses her voice in the middle, no doubt, and the long pitch black intervals assists in that we literally lose sight of Lela once she’s swallowed by her husband’s dark deeds. Her voice is drowned out, silenced and shushed but she persists in telling her tale to establish what happened – perhaps this is what’s important. What remains is that we have heard it all, the songs, the histories, the crying and the confessions. All these are important because they define who she is – who we are. The parable of the birthday cake at the play’s beginning is the lens through which we must understand this play. She tells us “it’s a story well told, though a lie, but a story that has become truth in the telling.” So Lela loses her way but she sets the record straight and remedies the crimes of the men of her life. She declares, “My name is Lela” because her name is what they cannot take away from her. In sharing her tale, and naming herself to the nameless soldier, to her nameless husband and father, she gives herself an identity beyond the men around her.