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‘A cornucopia of solo pieces’: Aisha (The Black Album) / Putting A Face On / Burn – Old Vic (Online review)

The Old Vic geared up for International Women’s Day for a week with its release of four monologue videos collectively called One Hand Tied Behind Us. To bring things up to date two short plays were also commissioned for release yesterday and together with an older monologue which is still available provided a second strand of work firmly focused on a female perspective. Together with an even older set of  monologues performed in celebration of the NHS called The Greatest Wealth this currently makes the venerable institution’s website a cornucopia of solo pieces with no less than 16 currently on offer; all but two focus on women’s voices and all but three are written by female dramatists.

The first of the new pieces Aisha (The Black Album) is very short, weighing in at just seven minutes, yet manages to span decades in its brevity as Jade Anouka reflects on recent and not so recent events in America particularly Trump’s administration (obliquely but tellingly referred to as “the last four years”), the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

There’s a particular focus on the latter as the speaker reflects back on the experiences of her own grandmother and, in turn, her grandmother. Far from the struggles that her forebears went through being a thing of the past they have been sharply brought back into focus as the protagonist prepares to take to the streets to continue the fight. Regina Taylor’s writing is poetic and Jade Anouka’s delivery fiercely determined and a lot of ground gets covered. However, I found I wanted to know more about the character – particularly why she declined to exercise her right to vote in 2016 thereby perhaps contributing to at least some of the problems she describes. Maybe the piece is intended as a warning in which case it could do with a little more focus.

The second new piece, Putting On A Face, comes across as far more interesting. It examines the phenomenon which has come to be known as gaslighting (named after Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight) which is  “a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories”. Not that the term is ever used in this monologue. In fact, for much of the time the protagonist would not even recognise that this is what she is undergoing but then that is in the nature of the beast.

Rather we get to understand what is happening through the piling up of small details – a disagreement over a novelty bathmat, the almost throwaway line that access details for her social media accounts have been handed over. The abuser trades on the apparent strength of the central character to institute a regime of coercive control, rightly figuring she will not reach out for help out of embarrassment at admitting to the truth.

She both literally and metaphorically adopts a mask to keep others at arm’s length. Neither will she, initially, admit it to herself – “It’s not like he hits me” she rationalises and there always seems to be a reason (the pandemic, it’s Christmas, his redundancy) which gives her reasons not to make any sort of move away. Susan Wokoma’s performance is quietly and unflashily sincere and all the more telling for it. Kiri Pritchard-McLean’s accomplished script has many wry asides to lighten the seriousness of the subject though I did find the ending ever so slightly schmaltzy.

While on the Old Vic’s site to view and review the new pieces, I thought I would also take the opportunity to catch up on a monologue that originated in another strand of the theatre’s One Voice project in 2019 focusing on mental health. This is Burn written by Sheila Atim and performed by Weruche Opia. Here the central character is in confessional mode to an (unseen) therapist and, by extension, us. Like the character in the previous piece the speaker here also attempts to obfuscate her problems through deprecatory humour and using language to conceal rather than reveal. We learn that she has tried various therapies such as wellness diets, meditating and yoga to stave off her mental health issues but her problems are manifesting themselves in troubled dreams. This, in effect, is far more troubling as it is not an area which can easily be brought under control. The second half of the monologue provides a climactic rush of emotion as Atim’s words and Opia’s character’s increasingly troubled soul lay bare the issues for this seemingly initially in control individual. It ends as a powerful plea for sustained help for the protagonist and others like her. I felt it was the most accomplished of the three pieces both in terms of writing and delivery and aided by a strong piece of direction – Atim again.

Nearly all of the monologues from the various series showcased on the Old Vic website are good reminders of the power of women writers and performers (and, in many cases, directors) to provide considered nuanced work although it would be a shame if they were only to remain available in the short term. In an ideal world, of course, there would be no need to place such work into a separate pigeon-hole in order to have its quality recognised but, as the saying goes, we are where we are, so all credit to the theatre for continually expanding the range of their One Voice project – long may it continue.

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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