Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008
Motherland at the Underbelly and The Idiot Colony at the Pleasance take all-female casts and place them into age-old roles: as mothers and as lunatics.
The Idiot Colony features a Rick Astley song. And it’s set in a psychiatric ward. It’s a play with a sense of humour, albeit a dark one. Performed by Cassie Friend, Claire Coache and Rebecca Loukes, in many ways it’s a clown piece. The opening image is of three women standing in a row, with their hair covering their faces - it looks like their heads are back-to-front. As these masks of hair are combed aside they reveal Victoria, Mary and the ironically named Joy. These women exist in a limbo of depression, disconnection and drugs. The surreal conceit of play is to situate them simultaneously in the ward and in a hairdressers’ salon. Joy has had her hair permed and shocked. It’s ambiguous as to whether the hairdressers is an imagined or remembered space, or whether it’s an occupational therapy section of the hospital. This ambiguity only serves to heighten the suspended, liminal quality of the play.
Through some beautiful ingenuity with towels and boot polish, we see the moments when these women fell into limbo and became fragmented people. Each one, like Eve, fell through sex – victims of mid-twentieth century society’s attitude towards womens sexuality. Despite the humour, this is a deeply tragic piece, based on research into the real histories of women who were locked away, their lives hidden and institutionalised. The Idiot Colony is eloquent and abstract in its response to these stories.
Motherland is a verbatim piece, a living history created from interviews with mothers, wives, and girlfriends in the North East. They are the modern home front, left behind while sons, daughters and husbands serve abroad in the forces. This is a play about relationships lost and found. It’s also a play about Iraq. While other countries are mentioned – Cyprus, Belize, Northern Ireland – it finds its focus in the middle east. And the women whose voices are presented here have extremely varied views on that conflict. Motherland builds a complex portrait of pride and pain.
It’s a well-researched and naturalistically acted play. The ensemble cast (Rachel Adamson, Charlotte Binns, Eleanor Clarke and Helen Emleton) has been nominated for a Stage award, and it’s a great showcase for them. In style it’s mostly an understated piece – the actors talk out towards the audience as if to an unseen interviewer, backed by a rough cloth. Unfortunately, towards the end this is undercut by some misplaced direction and flashy projections. The house lights come up and one actor proffers a microphone to the front row – you get the impression that there’s no intention of giving it to anyone, and that the fourth wall is still pretty intact - it’s more of an empty challenge. The programme notes state ‘The recordings of the interviews have been scrupulously studied and learnt by the actors’ - as with many verbatim pieces it does make you think, if you’re going to make a virtue out of the veracity of tape recordings, why not make a documentary? But these voices are interesting to hear, even if filtered through dramatic reconstruction.
Both Motherland and The Idiot Colony are woven from the stories of hidden women. Both plays at their close leave these women as respondents and victims, placing them back behind a net curtain or a veil of hair. They are tragic pieces that mark a continuing powerlessness.