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15 Heroines – Jermyn Street Theatre | Review

Martina Laird (Sappho) in '15 Heroines - The Desert' at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Shonay Shote.
Martina Laird (Sappho) in ’15 Heroines – The Desert’ at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Shonay Shote.

It helps, naturally, to have some knowledge of the Greek myths from which the stories in 15 Heroines are based on, but it isn’t strictly necessary: one can deduce what is going on from these monologues. It might even be helpful to approach these short plays by putting such prior knowledge aside, as this allows for an appreciation of these characters as the writers and actors have portrayed and reimagined them, without presuppositions.

Monologues in lockdown are nothing new – even BBC Radio 4’s The Archers had them at one point during the pandemic – but these are, on the whole, quite thrilling, and more often than not, more intense than I had expected them to be. Some of them are heavy on exposition – one or two are nothing but. Three programmes, each comprising five plays, provide overarching themes. The Labyrinth puts women who would otherwise be relatively peripheral centre stage, rather like the way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead puts the emphasis on characters that in a production of Hamlet would have significantly less exposure.

Many of the characters are linked to one another in some way, and it is almost a pity therefore that the monologue format doesn’t, by definition, allow for some interaction between them – a meeting of minds wouldn’t have gone amiss, and they could really put the world to rights together (without breaching the ‘rule of six’). Then again, each character tells their story uninterrupted and without anyone being dominating or being dominated. For instance, there’s an air of authority in Dona Croll’s Phaedra in Pity the Monster, which only increases when she sits down on an unremarkable chair that might as well have been a monarch’s throne.

The Desert is best at reinterpreting ancient stories and making them topical for the world in which we live, and therefore the one I would most heartily recommend for those who can’t spare the time to see it all. I couldn’t help but be amused by Indra Ove’s Deianaria in The Striker, where she talks in detail about being married to a footballer called Hercules Neville (make of that what you will). The celebrity lifestyle is contrasted well with the plight of Martina Laird’s Sappho in I See You Now, a woman who has fallen victim to the British Government’s ‘hostile environment’, labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’ despite having lived and worked in the UK for decades.

Across the board, the camera work is of high quality, as are various aspects one would expect if one were attending the theatre in person – sound effects, lighting and costumes, for instance. It does get tad ‘samey’ – on several occasions, there’s a MacBook on which a letter is being typed out. At least Sophia Eleni’s Laodamia in The War, speaking in what sociologists call Multiethnic London English (nah mean, innit, bruv, and so on) does a video message instead.

None of the fifteen characters have been treated well by the male species, either through outright abuse or (as it seemed more often to me) benign neglect. But it does not come across as a sweeping attack – these are individual stories. There is also a lot that modern audiences can relate to – and I don’t just mean the references Laodamia makes to ‘social media trolls’ and ‘mental health’. Gemma Whelan’s Penelope in Watching the Grass Grow, for instance, speaks of interfering neighbours and getting all sorts of messages but not the one she is really waiting for. Olivia Williams’ Hypsipyle in Knew I Should Have didn’t hear directly about the Golden Fleece from Jason, and finding out through the grapevine has its modern equivalent in, say, discovering that one is to be made redundant via a breaking news bulletin rather than a more personal method of communication.

Taken together, the plays are quite emboldening, capturing lament, stoicism, vulnerability and vindictiveness (some, as one might reasonably expect from such a disparate group, are more forgiving than others). There’s something for almost everyone in this intriguing and thoughtful collection.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Theseus, Hercules, Ulysses, Jason, Achilles… The island-hopping heroes of classical mythology leave a trail of women – queens, sorcerers, pioneers, poets and politicians – in their swaggering wake. Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid gave voice to those women in a series of fictional letters called The Heroines.

Now, 15 leading British playwrights draw inspiration from Ovid to dramatise the lives of 15 Heroines. This exclusive online production in partnership with Digital Theatre is filmed live in our empty theatre. Delivered by an outstanding cast in three parts – The War, The Desert and The Labyrinth – 15 Heroines is a landmark theatrical event.

The War tells the untold stories of the Trojan War – Oenone, Hermione, Laodamia, Briseis and Penelope, written by Lettie Precious, Sabrina Mahfouz, Charlotte Jones, Abi Zakarian and Hannah Khalil.

The Desert is about women going their own way – Deianaria, Canace, Hypermestra, Dido and Sappho, written by April De Angelis, Isley Lynn, Chinonyerem Odimba, Stella Duffy and Lorna French.

The Labyrinth is about the women who encountered Jason and Theseus – Ariadne, Phaedra, Phyllis, Hypsipyle and Medea, written by Bryony Lavery, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Samantha Ellis, Natalie Haynes and Juliet Gilkes Romero.

15 Heroines


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