In the dramatic and dripping cavern space at the Vaults, a light is shone onto ten women whom history has relegated, or in some cases completely forgotten. We meet rebels, queens and geniuses as we delve into the life of these extraordinary humans. Sounds great, right? What’s not to love? Well…
Although these monologues are at times well written by Lizzie Milton, the whole show is little more than that, with background movement from the other four performers. We have five women on stage all in flowing blue gowns, varying in appearance, standing tall as we enter the space (an arresting image to begin with). However, the physical theatre and mise-en-scène is lazy and repetitive. For most of the monologues, the lead is flanked on the outside by their fellow performers as they echo worlds in the text. This is such a shame, as the piece could have had much more of an impact if a little more effort was put into the overall sense of the scenes. Without this, the production, although interesting and enjoyable, falls short of its full potential.
Another problem is the tendency to ascribe modern sensibilities and characteristics onto historic characters. The play sits in an interesting postmodern territory as we have long dead women discussing their lives and deaths. This un-naturalistic radical exploration of the past is mostly wonderful, but can sometimes be taken too far. An example of this is Rebecca Crankshaw’s depiction of the mother of computer science Ada Lovelace, a fascinating woman, but giving her none of the inflexions of her time and an arrogance that feels uncomfortable. This lack of historical awareness can sometimes come across as under-researched as opposed to an interesting dramatic choice. Yes, the people in the past had many things in common with us, that’s the nature of humanity. But it is an easy and tempting step to pave over the differences we have from those in the past. Projecting our modern scruples onto people separated by the sea of time is reductive. Along with some actors choosing to try their hand at the accents of their characters and some completely ignoring them, a lot of the choices dramatically, as well as historically, could have been tightened up.
The show is not without light or enjoyment. Lydia Bakelmun beams as the confident trickster Princess Caraboo, inhabiting the role perfectly. Again Bakelmun’s Noor Inayat Khan has all the blast and bravery of the downplayed WWI heroine. Pamela Jikiemi’s hard-hitting depiction of England’s first female monarch Æthelflæd (not an easy one to spell), and the heartbreaking tale of Mary Prince’s struggle with slavery rends us to our core. This show has sections of emotional connection a-plenty, making us laugh, but it’s the clumpy direction by Nastazja Somers that lets it down. The story has so much anger, tenderness and clout. Although the stories are strewn together in a rather perplexing way, it has the making of a hit show. It’s the details that sadly scupper 10 with a red shell just before it roars past the finish line.
As lover of sass, feminism and history, I am 10‘s target audience. But just because it has its heart is the right place, does not necessarily mean it is an effective piece of drama. Yes, giving sound to these underrepresented voices is so important, but taking care with their stories is equally paramount. A clumsy depiction of these women is doubly a shame as they deserve the very best when it comes to the reanimation of their lives, having spent so long neglected on historys shelf. I am just not sure 10 does this.
10 is playing until 17 March. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.