Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London
The title is deeply ironic. Lela & Co stands for not only the injuries perpetrated on the central character, Lela, of Cordelia Lynn’s extraordinary imagination, but all those young girls whose abuse has hit the headlines in Bradford, High Wycombe and indeed, worldwide where women have been violated. The Co stands for an army of female abuse as well as a horrifically satirical comment on, you might say, the trafficking in female flesh, the business it becomes. Like Great Britain plc, so the sale of women. Lela & Co. A corporate company. A dozen times I thought of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan where the perception of women is as of goods and chattels or part and parcel of the trophy of war.
Lela is a sweet innocent possibly from the north east, or the north north east. At least, she talks of the winds and the landscape of the north east in loving, poetic terms. But the landscape she paints is purely a metaphor for any number of borders and countries in the largest metaphorical sense you can imagine. Lela is a victim, and a survivor.
As a little girl, she’s beaten by a not unloving father in a household where he is the only man. In her innocence, she is `passed on’ from hand to hand – first by her sister’s husband who sees her as a flirtatious `kitten’ to be helped through `the mine-field of social-sexual exchange’ and then on to a university friend and from thereon in, to more `friends’, gangs and ever onwards. As her world once encompassed fields, hills, the wind and flowers, gradually it shrinks to a back-room in which she is trapped, gang-raped and traduced on every level.
It’s a harrowing 90 minutes as you will by now have realised. How could material that encapsulates war, degradation, torture, humiliation be anything other. But the wholly distinctive thing about Lynn’s writing and the production that Jude Christian produces transforms and transcends the horror to create instead a deeply sardonic, at times almost playful burlesque in which the horror mutates into cardboard cut-outs and the amazing Katie West (Ophelia in Manchester’s Royal exchange Hamlet, to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet) remains smiling, upbeat. The brilliance of Lynn is to coat the horror in euphemism and for Christian to deliver it with a lightness of touch such as to make it even more grindingly, unforgettably affecting.
The worst bits, indeed, are played out in darkness. As Lela describes the darkest acts perpetrated upon her, we sit in blackout, her words penetrating ever deeper – nothing allowed to come between the account and our own worst imaginings.
Yet her spirit, even when circumstances are at their lowest ebb, remains bright, optimistic. And loving. She bears a daughter, she knows not who by. She meets a peace-keeper soldier who treats her not unkindly. And finally, like the Austrian women imprisoned for years by a father and kidnapper respectively, she walks free and home where she is met by – and here’s the twist – celebration but very soon a need to squash and silence her story.
In Lela & Co it is as though Cordelia Lynn has bundled into an amalgam all the worst crimes, human abuses and degrading perceptions of women that we have been reading and hearing about over the past decades against a backdrop of `felled’ cities and countries brought to the edge of destruction. An apocalyptic vision but one written with such originality, verve, distinction and performed by Katie West with such guileless sweetness it leaves you breathless with admiration. David Mumeni in shiny suit has the thankless task of acting as brother-in-law/father/husband/squaddie soldier and does so with a disarming, frightening calm.
There are so many stories that lie fathom deep and as Lela says `even if I were to even, one fine day, say, stand up on the table and say, `Lela. My name is Lela, and this is my own story, this is what happened to me’, I have to ask would they [her family] would they even would they hear because we have a way, a very way, a very human way of not hearing and not seeing…’
A brave, a very brave and wonderful play.
Lela & Co is at the Royal Court Theatre to Oct 3, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate Sept 2015