Review: The Amygdala, Bread and Roses Theatre

The theatre above The Bread and Roses pub is small. We must edge and shuffle into one of the chairs surrounding three sides of a stage. It almost presses into the shins of those on the front row.  The staging is incredibly simple, consisting of a solitary white box and a plain backdrop upon which projections appear throughout. On stage a single figure sits with her head resting forlornly on her knees. Are we her fellow inmates, packed in together, immobile, or a jury of her peers? Sitting in silent judgement.

After the audacious success of Orange is the New Black, society has developed a macabre fascination with the realities of women’s prisons and their inmates. The Amygdala offers a stark, provocative and heartfelt glance into the life of Kelsey (Amelia Gann), a convicted murderer who is serving a life sentence. We meet Thea (Sophie Fox), a driven yet naïve PHD student who is interviewing Kelsey for a thesis on how creativity can aid in the rehabilitation of female inmates. Throughout, Fox admirably inhabits the voice of a privileged yet tormented young woman who believes that her theoretical understanding of criminal justice and the inherent goodness of people are absolute. Yet as time passes she has her two dimensional understanding of human morality exposed by the unflinching and intensely likeable Kelsey.

Gann’s performance as Kelsey is the standout of this duologue. She is animated, humorous, and introspective, playfully chiding Thea’s methods, acknowledging the social and economic disparity between them, and showing stunning emotional range. There are several moments of humour and honesty that reveal a true bond between two people who must contend with the unique hostilities of life as women. With each blistering detail of her past revealed, we see a young woman who dismantles the stereotypes of a prisoner and who, like many in her position, was the victim of an uncaring society and uncompassionate legal system. 

The simple staging is effective due to the frank back and forth of Kelsey and Thea’s interactions. There is nowhere to hide. The two women seldom sit equally. As one lounges on the floor, the other stands downstage, showing their ideological conflict. Kelsey occupies the space freely, pacing and gesticulating, as though relishing a freedom of expression she has previously been denied. The stage ceases to be an office but rather an arena in which to exchange, disagree and grapple for a common ground. As Kelsey longs to be seen as a fractured, multidimensional human being and Thea repeatedly insists that she is “a good person” to absolve her of her self-condemnation, we see two women who are fundamentally at odds because they understand issues of freedom from opposite sides of the fence. 

The scenes are divided by interludes of contemporary movement as jarring synth music (composed by Sarah Carton) plays and abstract patterns (by Dee Dixon) are projected onto the backdrop. Each of these sequences is introduced with the repeated utterances of Thea’s “you’re a victim!” and Kelsey’s “you’re not listening!” most acutely showing Thea’s saviour complex and Kelsey’s frustration. They create a poignant timelessness in which Kelsey can communicate her trauma, fear, and humanity. The bravado is stripped away and we see stunning emotional clarity. The effect is deeply impactful. 

Fox’s sensitive play is a triumphant collaboration by Lady Muck and Knot Theatre. Its comment on our capacity for empathy and female acts of violence is moving till its final moments. We are drawn to the play’s devastating twist on an invisible, urgent current and, by the end, are left gasping for breath, revising our own belief in human redemption.

The Amygdala played the Bread and Roses Theatre until 19 August. For more information and tickets, see the Bread and Roses Theatre website.