This is a play for fans of Greek tragedy and theatre nerds. Luckily, this niche audience can be found in droves at Fringe festivals.
Intellectual, challenging and very satisfying.
It’s a play about a play within a play that considers those discarded from the narratives of history. Three women - historical figures from Ancient Rome - are trapped on stage. Their tragedies have just played out. The applause is subsiding and the director of the show, played by an unseen Voice, tells them to get some sleep before tomorrow’s performance. But the purgatorial trio do not. Agrippina, frustrated at the inaccuracies in the way they are represented, takes up that mighty weapon — a pen — and convinces Poppaea and Octavia to join her in re-telling their own stories. But with differing versions of what took place, the stories are in competition and the women begin snatching the pen from one another — because whoever holds the pen holds the power. They activate the ensemble of sleeping actors, who take on various roles. There is a delightful ‘choose your own adventure’ moment, when the audience gets to decide which of the three versions of a particular scene we will watch.
In the performance I saw, writer/director James Beagon also played the Voice — the disembodied omniscient controller of what happens on the stage, mercilessly keeping the three women trapped, caught in a ceaseless cycle of playing out their tragedies over and over again. (It’s very meta). As the play ramps up, scenes are played simultaneously, moments are edited and decried and the authorial Voice intrudes. Beagon’s script is ambitious and at times difficult to keep up with, unfolding a rapid parade of characters, affairs, betrayals and executions. This is deliberate: exploring the way stories are structured from history and what (and who) is discarded for clarity, if not accuracy.
Managing well with the challenges of the small space and large cast, the staging is strong. While the cramped stage at the Paradise Vault is perhaps not ideal, the proscenium arch allows the women to step outside the story. There is a need for further refining of the performance, but the eight members of the cast work well together, with some standout performances from Sophie Harris as the seductress/conquest Poppaea and Alice Paillocher in the ensemble who doubles in several parts. There’s a lot of fun in the way this piece plays with the theatrical form. It’s intellectual, challenging and very satisfying.