The ‘shot heard round the world’ is a phrase referring to several historical incidents, including the opening of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914. While the ‘shot’ still exists, these days more often than not it refers to footage recorded by a mobile phone and uploaded to a social media website. The technology may have moved on but the effect can still be the same and this is the central concept to Elinor Cook’s “Image of an Unknown Woman” at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill.
In an unnamed country, revolution is in the air and during a demonstration, Ali (Ashley Zhangazha) takes a video of a woman in a yellow dress being shot and lying bleeding on the pavement. Persuaded by his girlfriend Layla (Anjana Vasan) to upload the video, Ali has no idea of the consequences it will have throughout the world as it gets viewed and shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The momentum for revolution builds and thousands of people hold a vigil outside the hospital where the woman in the yellow dress is believed to be being treated. In amongst the crowd is Yasmin (Eileen Walsh). An ordinary woman, she is not there to protest but just to find her mother who went shopping and hasn’t been seen since. Apparently though, you can’t have normal problems during a revolution and Yasmin is ignored, patronised and basically passed over by the various people she (a ‘chorus’ played by Isaac Ssebandeke, Emilie Patry and Oliver Birch) begs for help. In the meantime, Ali and Layla have realised that they have done something that the government will not particularly like and are waiting for retribution to fall.
Far away, in a very pleasant middle class part of the UK, Candace (Susan Brown) a well off, lonely divorcee wants to do something to help the poor and dispossessed, particularly the children, of the revolution torn country and is working with a charity, fronted by Nia (Wendy Kweh) to provide money and contacts. Candace is full of suppressed rage over her divorce and believes that by helping a child in a far off land she is doing something good, but is her money going to the right people and is the charity Nia represents all that it seems?
Right from the start “Image of an Unknown Woman” grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. Entering the auditorium, the audience is hit by a wall of sound and flashing amber lights above a stage that is really a long runway with seats at different levels on either side. The lights are off and BANG! We are in the world of the Internet with a chorus of people sharing and talking about Ali’s video. The comments are well observed, from the outraged to the facile ‘she looks like my friend, I must call her’ their intensity growing as the video is shared and shared again. The action never stops and Director Christopher Haydon pulls out some amazing tricks to make his performing space be everything from a street outside a hospital to a very nice drawing room in a leafy suburb of London. Even helium filled balloons take on a special significance, used in ways I would never have dreamed off. The writing really works as well. There was a particular scene where the ruler of the country is addressing her people about the revolution/terrorism (depending on your point of view). Flanked by sunglass wearing bodyguards she delivers a short speech that (at first hearing) sounded so plausible, it would not be out of place in a legitimate legislature as repressive measure are taken to ‘protect’ the populace.
The acting throughout was very impressive. The Chorus really deserve a special mention for their ability to be so many people and project everything from young idealistic internet users to truly terrifying gas masked agents of the government. I also particularly want to mention Eileen Walsh who made Yasmin so believable as she reached desperation, prepared to do anything she could – even things that would have been unthinkable before – in her search for her mother. I also loved Susan Brown as Candace moving from a well brought up middle class lady – unable to express her feelings about anything – to a shrieking woman finally letting go in a late night phone call with Nia.
“Image of an Unknown Woman” is a very powerful play from start to finish. Sitting here in the UK it is easy to view other regimes around the world dispassionately and make judgements on them – the people leading the glorious revolution are always right after all. But are they? “Image of an Unknown Woman” shows the reality that in all things political, there are actually no simple solutions, no black or white but only various shades of grey.
Review by Terry Eastham
Image of an Unknown Young Woman
By Elinor Cook
Directed by: Christopher Haydon; Designer: Fly Davis
Lighting Designer: Mark Howland; Sound Designer: George Dennis
Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre, Christopher Haydon, today announces the cast for his production of the world première of Elinor Cook’s Image of an Unknown Young Woman – Oliver Birch (Chorus), Susan Brown (Candace), Wendy Kweh (Nia), Emilie Patry (Chorus), Isaac Ssenbandeke (Chorus), Anjana Vasan (Leyla), Eileen Walsh (Yasmin) and Ashley Zhangazha (Ali). The production opens on 8 June, with previews from 4 June, and runs until 27 June.
She is a young woman in a yellow dress.
She has been shot by the police.
As a video goes viral, she quickly becomes an icon of resistance and a revolution begins to stir. Ali and Leyla are panicking – they uploaded the footage and now the authorities are after them. Across town, Yasmin is desperate to know if her missing mother is still alive. Halfway around the world, a woman in London wants to help. As a tornado of dissent and violence spreads, everyone’s life is going to change.
Part of the Gate Theatre’s Icons and Idols season
4th June to 27th June 2015
Running time: 1hr 30 Minutes (approximately)
Wednesday 10th June 2015