There was a time, not so long ago, where the sight of an actor alone on stage was an enticing sign of the illusive soliloquy, common in Shakespeare but rare in most modern theatrical performances. Now, however, it is merely a sign of the times. Social distancing has led to minimal casting, the return of Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads, and lots of actors across the country speaking to themselves in an empty space. As a result, there is far more pressure for productions to keep audiences engaged whilst presenting this seemingly simple format of theatre.
This week, Jermyn Street Theatre launches 15 Heroines, a collection of monologues telling the untold stories of the women of Greek mythology, each filmed live at the theatre and in one continuous take. The production collates these monologues into three online films comprising of five monologues each, thematically linked as The War, The Desert, and The Labyrinth.
The stories themselves are inspired by a series of two-thousand-year-old letters written by Ovid in the voices of the women of the Greek myths, Heroides (Heroines). But Jermyn, rather than presenting a piece of historical theatre, commissioned a group of writers (all female and non-binary) to each use one of Ovid’s letters as the basis for an entirely original monologue. Each writer was given the artistic licence to decide in what way they present this tale: some take the source as a structure of narrative, some as the theme, some are entirely modern, and some feel rooted in ancient Greece but with a more modern attitude. This approach allows us to see the reality of these women and relate. Each story tackles a different battle — despair, longing, passion, betrayal, jealousy, fear, loathing — and yet all seem knitted together as a collective struggle to find their voice in a world of men.
Monologuing is an immensely challenging task for an actor, there is nothing to hide behind, no one to look to when their lines run dry, and responsibility lies entirely on them to carry the weight of the narrative. Yet within the first five minutes of this production, it is clear that the cast have been selected with amazing care, each of them bringing an immeasurable talent for combating a complexity of emotions in just one line of text, let alone across a twenty-minute monologue. The fifteen performers create a diverse range of women who lend their own specific talents and experiences to breathe life into the women of 15 Heroines, creating a varied pallet of the human condition.
It is a rare and wonderful gift to have such a consistently high standard of talent across a cast of fifteen and, as such, it is difficult to pick out performances. As a combination of both performance and writing, the following monologues stood out for me in particular: Knew I Should Have by Natalie Haynes, with Olivia Williams as Hypsipyle; Watching the Grass Grow by Hannah Khalil, with Gemma Whelan as Penelope; and String by Bryony Lavery, with Patsy Ferran giving a masterclass in acting as Ariadne. All three of these pieces were directed by Tom Littler (Artistic Director and Executive Producer at Jermyn), but I must also point out the terrific skill shown in the direction by Adjoa Andoh and Cat Robey throughout the remaining performances.
The structure and delivery of this production feels entirely theatrical. Whilst I am fully aware that I am viewing this from my living room, I also feel as though I am in one space with the performers, far more than most online theatre over the past few months. Jermyn Street Theatre, in collaboration with Digital Theatre, and with an incredible team of creatives, have pulled off a seamless production of fresh, inspirational, and provocative performances, giving a new lease of life to the lockdown monologue.
15 Heroines is showing online until 14 November. For more information and to book, visit the Jermyn Street Theatre website.