Theatre503, London (****)
Subtitled `a play with music and movement’, Elliott Rennie’s deep noted cello is the thrilling underscore to Cordelia O’Neill’s mesmerising but enigmatic Holocaust-fringed two hander.
As if to underline the beauty and the horror, Rennie’s cello weaves in and out of O’Neill’s narrative like a snake writhing in its death pangs.
In designer Camilla Clarke’s dark subterranean, split-focussed setting, two women confront each other. One sports a fur coat – an item not just of warmth but comfort and identity. The other, younger, woman in blue and white gingham frock recalls her family and counts. 1, 2, 3, relevé, she goes rehearsing her steps as if teaching small ones the first rudiments of ballet training.
Dance and ballet are at the core of O’Neill’s extraordinary duologue – an activity that for one woman will act as a way of surviving, for the other an agony of missed moments and opportunities squandered.
Like a rubric cube, No Place for a Woman presents a dizzying number of aspects. Early on, there are clues that indicate this may be yet another post-Holocaust narrative. But I have never seen one that presents its appalling randomness so poignantly or elusively as O’Neill attempts and succeeds in doing here.
For she, you suspect, is as fascinated by the accidental nature of Holocaust history (and indeed contemporary accounts of today’s genocidal terrors) as its direct horrors, highlighting it by presentation of two women, both possibly from quite similar bourgeois backgrounds, whose lives are entirely altered by circumstance and chance.
Isabella (luminous newcomer Emma Paetz) is Jewish. The other, Annie (the wonderful Ruth Gemmell, all twitchy neuroses) from a high ranking military family.
But nothing is straightforward; O’Neill’s dialogue switches back and forth between characters as if to emphasise their closeness and distance, the evanescence of identity, even at later points, both women assuming the role of Frederick, Annie’s Nazi officer husband – a man who like Amon Goeth shot his victims according to his personal whim.
Isabella, it turns out, has been saved by her capacity to dance, picked out by Frederick, taken into his household and kept in the basement where he visits her increasingly to the neglect of his distraught wife, Annie. Finally, they change places. A strange triangular love affair emerges.
What exactly is O’Neill stretching for here? Guilt assuaged by a form of love? Love destroyed by possessiveness?
You have to experience No Place for a Woman to make up your own mind, casting as it does, its own haunting, elusive spell.
What is not in doubt is director Kate Budgen’s brilliant direction, mining O’Neill’s script for its fluctuating atmospheres, role swops and illuminating moments that pierce like arrow shafts.
Together with Rennie, Paetz and Gemmell’s stunningly synchronised double-act turns No Place for a Woman into an unforgettable 75 minutes of theatre.
As the saying goes, required viewing.
No Place for a Woman
A play with music and movement
by Cordelia O’Neill
Annie: Ruth Gemmell
Isabella: Emma Paetz
Music/Cellist: Elliott Rennie
Director: Kate Budgen
Designer: Camilla Clarke
Lighting: Sarah Readman
Sound: Ella Wahlström
Movement Director: Lucy Cullingford
Producer: Philip Scott-Wallace
Associate Producer: Audrey Thayer
Dramaturg: Lauretta Barrow
Presented by Small Things Theatre in association with Theatre503
World premiere of No Place for a Woman at Theatre 503, May 3, 2017.
Runs to May 27, 2017
This review published on this site, May 9, 2017