‘Something about you (makes me want to hurt you)’

18 Oct

For this piece of performance art slash psychological social commentary, the cast and managers of Dirty Market Theatre took over a renovated chapel on the appropriately named ‘Asylum Road.’ Loosely based on the Greek myth of Electra, (who conspired with her brother to murder her mother and her mother’s lover), it also incorporates more general themes of abandonment, dysfunctional families and of course insanity.
The protagonist, whose name is Egg, finds empowerment through enacting the part of Electra; she resents her real-life mother who has abandoned her in a derelict apartment, visiting occasionally to deliver token gifts. She blames her mother for the death of her father, in circumstances we later discover are different from those of the ancient Greek story, but similar enough for Egg to increasingly confuse their characters’ names with people from her own life. It is not explained how exactly she becomes so obsessed with this particular story – it is narrated briefly at the beginning by a mysterious mentor-type figure in a suit, but thereon after no other character makes reference to it. Who is this figure anyway? Teacher? Social worker? Figment of Egg’s imagination? We never really find out.
This ambiguity is less of a problem as regards the characters in togas, who enter the scene fairly early on. One is the ghost of her dead sister, the others are more physical roles who play-fight with Egg and interact with the other characters in various, sometimes intimate ways, though only she can see it. The play’s great strength is its physical choreography, with the cast at various points performing highly orchestrated dance sequences, at one point embodying some kind of emotional wave. The sheer number of things going on at one time can become slightly overpowering; when, towards the end of her breakdown, the cast form and run a claustrophobic ring around Egg, the audience actively share her sense of being overwhelmed by the number of disparate voices and bodies.
The performances of the imaginary classical wraith-type figures cannot be faulted, though Egg’s long-lost brother, who represents Orestes in the original story, is perhaps too angry to be entirely convincing. Moreover, the target of his anger is not in fact his mother or step-father, but less concrete targets like the police and figures of authority. This all comes out when he gets drunk and discovers ‘for the first time’ the buzz of violent action. Egg herself has a difficult part to make sympathetic, but pulls it off and makes her bizarre current circumstances seem possible, even realistic. She is not a caricature of a mad person. Her mother, perhaps symbolically named ‘Pony,’ is wonderful as a self-obsessed, but desperately guilty, absent and sometime abusive parent. Her neglect of her daughter is justified by the lack of love she gave back: ‘You were always Daddy’s girl.’ It matters not that she is played by a man – reportedly the member of the cast who made the most convincing audition.
Overall, the set, staging and performances were beautiful, and the story – despite the necessary suspension of reality, in parts – was persuasive. The director complained that critics have called them difficult to define, that they need to limit themselves to a certain box. For me it was not the genre but the theme that was unclear. Is Greek mythology only of relevance to the mentally disturbed? Does myth or fiction only ever offer an escape from reality? The family dynamics came across strongly, as did the portrayal of madness, but the intrusion of ancient Greece seemed a little like a gimmick, and its importance was not fully explained. Also they dragged me out to Peckham…


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