A perfect little gem of a piece at the Arcola yesterday, in their Studio 3 no less, which is right off Studio 2. I’d never been inside 3 before. The first thing that hit me when I entered was the set – the ethereal beauty and grandeur of the Middle Kingdom had been somehow brought to life. The golden gates to Shih Huang Ti’s tomb shimmered, set off by ruby-red Chinese lanterns in the dark cavernous space. Together they provided a fine setting for the grotesque tale that unfolded.
The great emperor Shih Huang-Ti has died. All those who accompanied him in life must die too, inside his vast funereal complex consisting of outer rings and inner rings. In the innermost chamber, with the emperor himself, are entombed alive seven mistresses who bore him no sons. All robed in in black gowns, they are led nominally by the quick-witted More Light, played with terrific zest by the director herself, Catrina Lear.
As they are locked inside and the dark engulfs them, they unleash a blood-curdling scream of horror that chilled the very bones of this viewer. Soon though, they recover some of their composure. How to solve the problem of food? Simple. Eat the emperor himself. What price lines like these – “his love member that tasted of cheese, though we were already familiar with that, having tasted it often in the past”! Bryony Lavery’s script was a constant delight. What was just as fine was the ensemble work by the actresses, playing the roles of mistresses with names like More Light, Pure Joy, Playful Kitten and other such harem monikers. Even though their use of language is always ornate, proper and formal, it still manages to reflect the doom that has fallen in on them.
The girls unbinding their long-bound feet is one of the more joyful scenes in the story. Shedding their heavy robes, they skimp about in identical red undershirts. More Light goes off in search of help, is waylaid by a eunuch with whom she forms an affection of sorts. Two other girls go semi-lesbian. One girl creates naïve art that she hopes will live long after they are dead, to be discovered by generations who will arrive centuries later. Another girl, a fierce blonde, finds herself taking charge as others falter. The music enhances the horror, as do the darkness, the lighting, the looming silhouettes of the vast bronze soldiers. It’s all over in 55 minutes but for that period, you are given a penetrating insight into a different world, a different people, a different time. The insight may or may not be exact, but you get the feeling that it might not have been so far from the truth after all.
This is the best kind of theatre. Savvy and transforming – theatrical in the true sense of the word. Kudos to the cast and crew, many of the girls were making their professional debuts. Afterwards, I even had a brief chat with Judith Musil (not related to the writer) who played the role of Pure Joy. Light grey skies and a cool wind over Hackney, and I walked off into the evening.
P.S. Big rumpus in the blogs - see Guardian, Whingers and Madam Miaow. But most particularly, see Catrina Lear's own comments in Lyn Gardner's post. Powerful stuff.