The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women

Reviews Rating

Five women with prison experience have created and perform in this experimental play which is really more performance art. They relate their own encounters with the judicial system and address its failings. They are supported in its creation by Brazilian theatre-makers Janaina Leite and Lara Duarte, and Clean Break who produce theatre which highlights stories of women who have been criminalised.

The audience are invited to enter an auditorium to mill around and watch four muses, one in each corner of the room, each representing mythical or historical figures. We meet Athena (though why she has wings and black curled horns is not made evident – I thought she was the Devil at first), Medusa holding up with a mirror she continually looks into (I thought she was Vanity) and two others which I did not get to hear; one has a halo who and sings blues songs (from the press release I learn she represents Afeni Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party), another in a red dress with a scouse accent has a picture of Angela Davis in her corner. This was the first failing of the production as the audience were asked to go to one of the goddesses and watch them give their monologues while another in the opposite corner performed loudly simultaneously. This was distracting and made it difficult to follow. Second up, the other two performers did their spiel speaking loudly at the same time. Since you could only listen and watch one at a time, you missed half of the performance. It is not clear what dramatic message this is trying to get across.  That it is sometimes difficult for women’s voices to get through?   A major domo climbs a ladder to tell her story of bad parenting and abandonment.  They all talk as if in a dream as the audience gathers round one or the other ‘I’m too much, too needy, too scary, I’m a crackhead….you put something my drink?  I don’t trust you.’

The second part of the performance is more conventional and we are allowed to sit down on wooden seating round the edge. The five actors change costumes to present a courtroom scene, where they explain the development of the criminal justice system from a revenge-based forum as seen in Greek tragedy where the Furies punish man for transgressions against the social order.  They depict trials and trial methods, like the torture of Joan of Arc, taking myth and history to create a picture of accused women through the ages.

A more coherent (and more interesting) angle is presented in the women’s real-life stories as the show progressed to the modern adversarial system supposedly arriving at the truth of a charge, with the aid of the clothing and other rituals of the court: the wigs and gowns and lawyers’ body language.  Much is left to skill of lawyers’ presentation and chance, however, with the best hope for a positive outcome being that the judge had ‘a good breakfast, a good night’s sleep and a good shag the night before.’ Yet only three of the stories are told – one a self-confessed shoplifter and bank robber who has been told by her manipulative mother she was useless; one about a women’s mixed-race son who has been acquitted by the jury of murder after he had stabbed someone in self-defence, but jailed when the verdict was overturned by the judge; a third, a solicitor’s clerk by day and a dope dealer’s receptionist by night, her criminality a result of being passed around foster homes. We are looking at failings of the system and society rather than failings of the women themselves.

Finally in a haze (dimmed lighting and dry ice) the actors strip down to petticoats stimulating the actual prison experience of time passing slowly, each musing on ‘The scars I have collected on my body like souvenirs.’ The actors put their all into this raw and honest presentation and do a commendable job. While the show is bitty and rather disjointed, it is a worthy project, but more a theatrical experience than a play.

Genre: Drama

Playwright: Lara Duarte

Concept, Dramaturg and Director: Janaina Leite

Co-creator and Dramaturg: Rachel Valentine Smith

Cast: Athena Maria, Dominique Lavine Wood-Whyte, Kim Teresa Marsh, Sara-Jane Dent, Yvonne Wickham

Performance Dates: 14-22 June 2024

Running Time: 1 hour, 15 mins. No interval