Two-Headed, currently showing at the Rose Theatre, is the first contemporary play to be staged at the historic venue, and I have to say it works surprisingly well.
For those of you who do not know the history of the Rose Theatre on Bankside, a word or two of explanation are in order. In 1989 the foundations of the theatre were discovered by accident during a routine office block development, and after further research it was found, amid great excitement, to be the first of London’s theatres to be built, in 1567, south of the Thames on Bankside, and the first to stage Shakespeare’s plays such as Titus Andronicus and Henry IV part I.
Unfortunately the money ran out, and the greater proportion of this important archaeological discovery is now under water. Thankfully there is still enough room above the waterline to house a very small stage and seating area, and it is in this atmospheric and intimate location that the plays are staged.
Two-Headed tells the story, over forty years, of two Mormon women, sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, but always sharing a heavy secret; their knowledge of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which 127 immigrants were slaughtered by the Mormons. Liz McMullen plays the stolid and cheerful Hettie, while Noor Lawson is the mercurial and unstable Lavinia. The story is told in five snapshots of the women’s lives, starting when they are just ten years old, which difficult piece of acting both women manage admirably and convincingly. We learn of the massacre, though whether their knowledge is first or second hand is yet to be revealed. We also “meet” the rest of the cast: Jane, Lavinia’s best friend and soul-mate; Ezra, Hettie’s one true love; and Lavinia’s father, the fanatical Mormon military commander. Though these personages never actually appear on the stage, their characters and lives are so well depicted by the girls that we feel we know them.
Left to right: Actress Noor Lawson, writer Julie Jensen and actress Liz McMullen
Over the next 80 minutes (no interval), we watch the girls’ lives unfold. We learn of Jane’s death, and witness its devastating impact on the mind of the already emotionally fragile Lavinia. They marry – cue tortuous polygamous family ties – they fight, they suffer, they survive. Julie Jensen’s writing is authentic and earthy, the emotion raw and real. There are flashes of humour and scenes of intense affection, but the overwhelming lasting impression is one of grief, guilt, bitterness and rage. Maybe it was due to the claustrophobic physicality of the locale; every conversation, every fight, every paroxysm of grief, every mental breakdown took place around four feet in front of our noses; but we staggered out of there feeling as if every nerve we possessed had been stropped raw. This was also partly due to the quality of the acting; both girls wrung every drop of honesty and emotion from their characters, and must have been completely exhausted themselves by the end of the performance. McMullen as Hetty is practical, sunny, and ably provides most of the humour of the piece. Lawson as Lavinia gives a powerful performance, combining mental instability and strength, even if some of her manic interludes verge slightly on the melodramatic.
There is a lot of symbolism in the play; a two-headed calf, a tree, a severed hand, but what it all represents is ambiguous to say the least, rather like the relationships between the protagonists. Julie Jensen, herself from Utah, wrote the play after finding herself incapable of speaking to the descendants of the massacre at a remembrance ceremony. For her, the term Two-Headed is all about secrets; “We were two-headed about a lot of things, meaning that we kept secrets. We had public heads and private heads.” and this comes across very strongly in the play, and in the performances.
Two-Headed offers a fascinating insight into the lives and preoccupations of the Mormon community in the nineteenth century, and is worth seeing for the quality of the acting alone. As for the Rose Theatre, it is one of the most compelling and atmospheric theatres I have ever been in, and I hope to see many more performances there. That is, if their fund-raising is successful, and they manage to save the site from being submerged under water and lost forever. Now that would be a tragedy.
Review by Genni Trickett
19th July, 2012