The Gate’s always wonderfully intimate space is this time transformed into a rebel military base in war-torn Liberia, in director Caroline Byrne’s accomplished staging of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. Chiara Stephenson’s highly detailed design immediately transports us from Notting Hill to this at once unwieldy and claustrophobic world, where four powerless and desperate women can either cling to hope or turn to wielding guns. With the audience thrown into the heart of the action it is hard not to be affected by the production, which brings us face to face with our own propensity for violence and injustice, and asks those big questions that we’d often rather ignore.
Eclipsed is an often harrowing piece, which follows the journeys of four women doing their best to survive the war they’ve been dragged into, and the peace worker who seeks to help them. All married to the same Commanding Officer at the base, the strengths of the women’s bonds are tested with the arrival of The Girl (the brilliant Letitia Wright), who quickly becomes wife Number Four, but the CO’s first preference. As allegiances form and shift between the women, the play delves into just how cut-throat the politics of war can be through the workings of this microcosm.
The cast, comprising Faith Alabi, Michelle Asante, Joan Iyiola, T’nia Miller and Letitia Wright, is superb. They work wonderfully as an ensemble and Gurira’s characters are each unique and intriguing, each incredibly strong though not without vulnerability. And despite its heavy subject matter, Eclipsed is also very funny at times, bringing much-needed moments of lightness to proceedings.
The show does feel long, despite only running at an hour and three quarters straight through, largely due to a tendency to labour the issues the play deals with at times. When the world and circumstances are so laden with drama and meaning already, this added discussion feels extraneous and tips the balance towards us hearing solely the playwright’s agenda, rather than the genuine thoughts and voices of her characters. This, combined with the slightly unclear storytelling at the beginning, where it was hard to work out who was who and what was happening, nearly meant I wasn’t on board with the production at times.
However, with its moments of sublime acting and some skilfully executed writing, Eclipsed does pull through and by the end of the production it’s hard not to be profoundly affected by the sheer humanity of these women and their plight, making Eclipsed valuable and heart-wrenching watching.
Eclipsed is playing at the Gate Theatre until 16 May. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo by Helen Murray.