views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Virago
Etcetera Theatre
15th August 2017

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for Virago

Photography provided by Out of Order

Welcome to Virago, a nation where woman rules. From the fun to the serious to the downright surreal, this devised performance by Out of Order takes the audience on a journey into the imagination of Eva (Antonia Draper), a toilet attendant, and her thoughts on women's visibility in today's world.

We start with a short monologue from Eva, and are then swiftly introduced to Chaz (Grace Hussey-Burd), Christine (Astrid Nøkland), Frankie (Olivia Griffiths), Lou (Katie Hart), Nora (Eve Carson), Rosa (Meg Chaplin) and Sylvia (Harriet Diggory), a variety of personalities with their own stories of being overlooked and condescended and made to apologise for who they are. The subject of invisibility crops up repeatedly. This topic is introduced by Eva's complaints of invisibility amongst the other women, but, as the play progresses, this quickly reveals itself as a neat metaphor for women's invisibility in general. By means of ceremony, rituals, disagreements, laments and confessions, the story takes us through everything about the perception and treatment of women and the questions it raises.

The staging is remarkable for its creative re-use of a beautifully simple scene - a toilet in a bar or club, represented by five seats and some tissue paper. With frequent time-hopping and re-imagining of the space with each scene change, the simple set becomes a whole world where everything is possible, and the audience is guided effortlessly from scene to scene. It is simultaneously the plain old toilet, and the new world in which great things occur.

At times I couldn't help feeling that what was presented didn't quite match what was described. The blurb talks of a "new world order", in which we see "cracks appear" after a while. Aside from a brief argument over the rules of a drinking game (which, admittedly, did touch upon inherited patriarchal thinking) and a comic fight over a tampon, I saw too little to suggest that this new world order was falling apart. Indeed, its occupants seemed to be largely getting on with the job of voicing their objections to the world they had left behind, interspersed with having a good time, with only minor disputes taking place.

If there was an intention to portray the difficulties of establishing a new way of running things - Lord of The Flies sprung to mind more than once - it needs reinforcing with stronger, more explicit disagreements. Reducing it to games and tampons does risk trivialising the topic. There also needs to be a sense that the disagreements build up, rather than occur like a flash in the pan and then quickly dissipate, which was the impression given. The change of scene - which happens when any of the characters utters the word "shift" - also raised an eyebrow, as the motive behind such a mechanism was not entirely clear.

All of this could have mattered a great deal more, but the combination of a thought-provoking subject and consistently effortless portrayal served to carry the performance through those issues. The sheer energy and credibility of the cast - and I don't wish to single anyone out as all members were highly relatable and clearly behind the concept - transformed a slightly incomplete storyline into a captivating and engaging experience, entertaining and challenging in equal measure. As the lights came up and the bows were taken, I couldn't help thinking it could have gone on longer than the half hour it lasted.

Devised performances are risky endeavours, though on this occasion, the fact that this performance is devised rather than directed is fitting, given the communal nature of the new world its characters create. The sense that all eight women had (presumably) equal say in the development of the show is reflected in the equal division of airtime between all characters. Virago is a solid and professional performance that already works on the level of criticising the world as we know it whilst remaining entertaining throughout, and if the concept can be revised to reinforce the sense of difficulty in establishing new structures, it deserves to return stronger and more hard-hitting.

Virago opened on 15th August and runs until 17th August 2017 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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