Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Theatre review: Midsummer Mischief Programme A - The Ant and the Cicada and Revolt. She Said. Revolt again

As a companion piece to the RSC's "Roaring Girls" season, Erica Whyman commissioned a quartet of short plays by female playwrights on the theme of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's quote "Well-behaved women seldom make history." Collectively called Midsummer Mischief, their run in Dame Stratford-upon-Avon is followed by a brief showcase at the Royal Court Upstairs. The one-acters are presented in two double bills, each only getting two performances here, and Programme A was the only one I could fit into my schedule; but it was the one I wanted to see more as the writers were more promising: The double bill opens with Timberlake Wertenbaker and her take on a modern Greek tragedy. Of course, classic Greek tragedy is a specialty of Wertenbaker's, and its themes percolate through The Ant and the Cicada (a reference to the Aesop fable commonly known as The Ant and the Grasshopper.)

Of two half-English, half-Greek sisters, the cicada is Zoe (Julie Legrand,) an artist who lives on the family's estate on an unnamed Aegean island. The estate includes a replica amphitheatre, so Zoe spends her time teaching Greek tragedy to visiting students - although in practice all she does is build up debts. After a long absence her much younger sister Selina (Ruth Gemmell,) the ant, returns with a wealthy businessman in tow, Alex (John Bowe.) They have a plan to save Zoe's home, but she won't like it.

Starting naturalistically, The Ant and the Cicada goes in quite a different direction once we get to a piece of theatre written by Zoe, and performed in the amphitheatre by her daughter Irina1 (Mimi Ndiweni.) Taking on the concept of democracy itself and the way the sisters, and the people they represent, have widely different interpretations of it, the play sometimes lectures. It's not entirely satisfying, and it rests on the rather shaky premise of Zoe being made to sign a contract when she's drunk, but it has some interesting moments.

Very different is Alice Birch's Revolt. She Said. Revolt again which sees Gemmell, Ndiweni, Scarlett Brookes and Robert Boulter enact a number of scenarios, while captions on the back wall describe the revolutions in gender politics they represent. Opening with a very funny sequence in which Ndiweni and Boulter describe the things they'd like to do to each other sexually, the woman's language increasingly starts to mirror the aggressive, possessive kind of phrasing the man habitually uses, to his growing discomfort.

There's quite a lot of darker scenes as the playlet goes on, and Birch presents an extreme view of feminism that takes in women's control over their own bodies, and the ties of family. The piece culminates in deliberate chaos as the rejections of gender convention overlap; it's an odd experience but performed energetically and with conviction.

Midsummer Mischief Programme A - The Ant and the Cicada by Timberlake Wertenbaker and Revolt. She Said. Revolt again by Alice Birch is booking in repertory until the 17th of July at the Royal Court's Jerwood theatre Upstairs (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

1Irini, surely? She's meant to be Greek, not Russian.

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