I’ve finally found it: the Fringiest show at the Fringe! Hyena is a free-wheeling, difficult, often uncomfortable and sometime revelatory experience. Romana Soutus’ one woman show starts with her locked in a dog cage, and things just get more disturbing from there on in.
This is not a play for everyone’s tastes, but it’s important and joltingly original.
Soutus has worked as an actor and creative at experimental New York theatre company La Mama for three years, and Hyena is her playwriting debut. The show was inspired by all of the things that she’s terrified to tell people, but now that fear is projected back on to the audience. Soutus’ every move is bold and visceral as she singles out individual audience members to hold eye contact with whilst exploring the murkier depths of her being.
Soutus’ material is a delicate balancing act between the genuinely intimate and intentionally shocking. Admitting she sometimes forgets to wash for several days and used to derive pleasure from ripping her milk teeth out do more to make the audience uncomfortable than reveal visceral depths to her being, though the latter passage is remarkable for its erotic poetry. The more visual dimension of Soutus’ performance, which involves a chicken, watermelon and some strawberries meeting a messy end, prompt a more gut reaction to keep us on edge.
It’s all partly to show what we look like when inhibitions are completely removed. A particularly intimate game of Never Have I Ever reveals that the majority of audience members all have similarly dark impulses to Soutus’ character. After all, at the start of the play it is an audience member who unlocks Soutus’ cage; we are the ones who let “the beast” out, though we find it difficult to look at these starker impulses full in the face.
There’s also a brash attack on societal notions of femininity, and a hint that some of our unease at the performance stems from ingrained sexist assumptions and received ideas of womanhood. Soutus’ sections on the violent entitlement of primary school boys and her mother’s advice to “leave something to the imagination” is brutal and honest, and makes us think deeper about the subconscious reasons that lead us to react to the performance in the ways that we do.
It’s a genuine and visceral experience, but not without its flaws. The nebulous structure and runs of free association occasionally veer away from the play’s integral honesty towards arty posturing, and when Soutus rounds the piece off with a more conventional monologue about relationships, something of the early rawness is missing. Lines like “I’d rather be lost inside of you than whole alone” have lost their immediacy through overuse in angst-ridden poetry and romantic melodramas, so don’t hold the same power as the rest of the show.
Soutus’ closing message, a plea to have the courage to be your true self and full of contradictions, is nonetheless an excellent way to bring this daring show to a close. Not many of us can claim to be as honest with ourselves as Soutus is over the course of this hour’s performance, and you often get the sense she’s reassuring us, saying it’s OK to feel this way. This is not a play for everyone’s tastes, but it’s important and joltingly original. Surely part of the Fringe’s raison d’être is to find a home for experimental theatre of this calibre.