Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, London
Did Elinor Cook have in mind that famous iconic picture of the little Vietnamese girl screaming in the road when she entitled her latest play, Image of an Unknown Young Woman kicking off Christopher Haydon’s intriguing new Gate season of Icons and Idols. Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s photo that went round the world came to symbolise the horror of the Vietnam war for a generation and beyond.
Maybe though it was something more contemporary she had in mind – images that now shoot round the globe courtesy of social media, viral events that are turning our world upside down.
Image of an Unknown Young Woman however is not solely about how the digital age is shaping our lives although image is surely at the heart of Cook’s dark and troubling piece. Like the best of writers, she has a way of juxtaposing contrary atmospheres – tenderness with violence. It makes for a complex, satisfying mixture as indeed was the case in her 2014 HighTide offering, The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World.
Here, Cook covers an enormous amount of ground in 90 minutes. Revolution, torture, desperation as a driver of extreme acts, the changing role of women, western guilt and of course photography/video are all in there in this dramatic mosaic starting with the shooting of a young woman and given an almost classical structure with its opening chorus and climaxing epilogue in which the nature of what we take to be truth and reality from images is seriously questioned.
Action swings from protestors exploiting the killing to the even more heartbreaking example of a daughter searching for a mother who went out shopping and simply disappeared (think South America, Burma, Arab Spring, Ukraine etc etc). `Freedom and democracy’ may score points for political self-righteousness but, Cook implies, they can bring with them terrible, `accidental’ collateral damage.
On the Gate’s tiny stage, Christopher Haydon’s traverse setting again works wonders, bringing a shuddering immediacy to Cook’s poignant re-examination via a cracking cast that includes the always intensely watchable Susan Brown as the middle class, middle aged westerner beside Eileen Walsh’s despairing daughter and a terrific multi-ethnic group of up-and-coming young talents. Great stuff.
Image of an Unknown Young Woman is at the Gate Notting Hill to June 27, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate June 2015