views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Peckham Asylum
18th September 2015


Danielle Winter and Adam Drew as Her and Him

Photography © Marianne Chua

Following the exciting launch of And So Forth back in June, it felt like I had been waiting forever for their first full-length production, Damsel/Wife/Witch. (I say forever - it was only a few months. But you know what it's like when you're waiting for the jolly fat man and his sleigh full of goodies, even delaying the big event by minutes feels unbearable.) A series of unfortunate events collaborated to prevent me from seeing this piece any earlier than its closing night, so by the time I took my seat in the deliciously atmospheric Peckham Asylum, the hype had reached epic levels. New writing, new music, interdisciplinary, quirky venue - so many of my favourite boxes ticked.

Damsel/Wife/Witch isn't quite a play and it isn't quite an opera: it's essentially a piece of theatre narrated by seven libretti. A couple, generically named Him (Adam Drew) and Her (Danielle Winter) are exploring the woman's childhood home and in some respects, each other. They've reached a point where he wants to settle down, she isn't quite sure, and all those big questions and tensions come to a head - here through the medium of fairytales.

The language is unnaturalistic, which some might find odd, but for me, it's a respectful nod by co-writers Laura Attridge and Richard Walls to the old stories which have inspired this production. You couldn't really describe the dialogue in a fable as present day conversational, after all. The couple are having trouble communicating their hopes and desires and given that they share a love for old-fashioned storytelling, it does make sense that they dance around the issues through tales of charming princes and helpless maidens. Although the language is stilted for us, it's not awkward for them, and the important people are the two characters on stage, who are either going to cement their longstanding relationship or crumble at any moment. We sense that as strange as their words are, this is the first time they've managed to find any kind of mutual clarity.

The man wants a wife - someone he can provide for and look after. Whilst the woman immediately rejects his plan for their future as antifeminist, this weakens her position as it's obvious she doesn't know what she wants, and something can only be antifeminist if it's against the wishes of the female concerned. Breadwinner? Trophy wife? Both can be equally feminist: it's all about choices and a woman's right to determine her own destiny. As the two protagonists battle it out, the power play and word play become increasingly unsettling - how serious are they? You find yourself wishing you had heard them agree a safe word because you just don't know if what's happening is okay or not.

Having previously heard composer Lewis Murphy's songs out of context, it's fascinating to hear how they slot into this final work. Some, such as Beast and Widow do fit easily into Damsel/Wife/Witch like that glass slipper on Cinders' foot; others feel more abstract. There is meaning to everything, and although the libretti haven't changed, the significance of some do feel different this time round, after watching more of Him and Her challenging each other so. I don't think they all feel as immediately intuitive as I had hoped, however there is an undeniable beauty which all will enjoy.

For me, the clear star is Katie Coventry. Her vocals are technically competent, however it's her sheer expressiveness which rounds out her performance and makes her a talent to shout about. In the first half, we see her empathy with the characters; in the second, she almost becomes a part of their reality, interacting with the man as he relates the story of Bluebeard and his wives. Coventry never speaks a single word, yet comes across as a superb actress as well as an opera singer. She's always there, looking in - a bit like Hans Christian Andersen's selfless Little Mermaid desperately wanting to be a part of that other world. With her director's hat on, Attridge helps weave the action together.

And So Forth have yet again created something which is impossibly difficult to label. Whilst not every element has come together perfectly, you do forgive that in light of how unique the project is.

Damsel/Wife/Witch ran run from 15th to 18th September 2015 at Peckham Asylum.

Nearest station: Queens Road Peckham (Overground)

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