Barefaced Theatre, the company behind Women on Top is making a stand. A season of three new plays (Mad Women, All Hidden and Where will you say you’ve been?) are a powerful statement of women’s significance. Moments from the market stalls, the Portobello Popup is an invigorating location for a theatre. The box office is a refurbished popcorn cart while the theatre bares the concrete floor and walls of a converted warehouse. While the weather may not impede on any conventional theatre performance, it became necessary for blankets to be handed out once inside as the chilling winter air was seeping in, adding to a sinister atmosphere to this intellectually stimulating piece of theatre.
Based on the lives of four extraordinary female authors, Mad Women delves into their muddled and unsafe minds, overtly realising a terrific madness in them all. It is chilling to watch how this madness eventually destroys them, impinging on their relationships and distorting their ability to love and be loved. Written predominantly by Berri George, alongside the company, the piece articulately demonstrates the conflict between their collective need to write and their duties as a wife or mother. Despite being famous for her influences as a feminist, Mary Shelley was depicted through her submissive relationship to her husband, Percy. Shelley was played by Anne Zander, who transmitted the essence of her genius skilfully, her fascination and eventual fury at nature was prevalent and moving; this all, of course is expressed in her masterpiece, Frankenstein.
The piece gradually introduced each of the authors, until the actors occasionally overlapped lines with a previous scene, therefore highlighting their shared passion for writing. As each new author appeared, a quote of theirs would appear typed on a huge projection screen across the back. This quote would often infect the atmosphere with the impending doom of these unsound characters. The projection screen worked extremely effectively, adapting the space into a train carriage, garden or the yellow wallpaper of Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s book. Marcia Brown played the young American poet, Emily Dickinson, who was often found locked away in her room late at night, scribbling poems to her friends and relatives. Brown’s voice was delectable to listen to, and it made Dickinson an intensely likeable character. She, like Mary Shelley, was haunted by a voice in her head that violently encouraged her to write and study rather than to leave the extremities of her room. For Dickinson, her genius repelled love, and her inability to be loved led to a downward spiral that was poignantly written and performed. Charlotte Perkin Gilman was played by the executive producer and writer of the company, Berri George. Her madness was plainly obvious, noticeably in the piercing and crazed eyes of the actress. After the birth of her child, Katherine, Gilman suffers from post-partum depression, which leads to a fiercely disturbing scene of her in the loft of their house, which was later the source of inspiration for The Yellow Wallpaper. Enthralled by the first three performances, I excitedly awaited the interpretation of Virginia Woolf and my expectations were surpassed. What made Alexa Brown’s performance of Virginia Woolf so stunning was its self-containment. After all, Woolf did not try to present herself as mad, yet she was possessed by voices in her head that spoke so profoundly to her.
At two hours and 20 minutes, I felt it could’ve been shorter; there were also moments that were incongruous to the innovative style of the piece. The talent of the four female leads highlighted technical weakness in the supporting actors, and I believe that the male parts could have been shared between the female actresses adding to the strength of the feminist statement that was being emitted.
Barefaced Theatre is an exceedingly creative company that teems with imagination, intellect and realism. Not only does it explore fascinating people and ideas, but it tells their stories in unconventional ways that have been replaying in my head since I saw it.
Mad Women is playing at Portobello Popup until 13 October. For more information and tickets, see the Barefaced Theatre website.