fri 04/12/2020

15 Heroines, Jermyn Street Theatre online review - putting the women back into Greek myth | reviews, news & interviews

15 Heroines, Jermyn Street Theatre online review - putting the women back into Greek myth

15 Heroines, Jermyn Street Theatre online review - putting the women back into Greek myth

Scorching adaptation of Ovid is a welcome theatrical respite from lockdown

Mischievous and devastating: Jemima Rooper as Briseis in 15 HeroinesMarc Brenner

Women have an awful time of it in the Greek myths. Raped, abandoned, blamed for murdering people, blamed for not murdering people – you name it, it’s happened to an Ancient Greek woman, and they didn’t even get to talk about it themselves.

Women have an awful time of it in the Greek myths. Raped, abandoned, blamed for murdering people, blamed for not murdering people – you name it, it’s happened to an Ancient Greek woman, and they didn’t even get to talk about it themselves. Ovid picked up on this discrepancy, and, in a rare flash of wokeness, wrote The Heroines, 18 letter-poems from the neglected women of the myths. 15 Heroines, an epic new series of monologues commissioned by Jermyn Street Theatre and streaming this week, is a tricksy, playful adaptation of those letters, written, acted, and (mostly) directed by women. 

 It’s as close to live theatre as a stream can get: each 15-minute monologue was filmed in a single take, and the camerawork is masterfully unobtrusive. We even get a snatch of scene-setting stage manager talk at the beginning and end of each of the shows. There are three of them: The War, The Desert, and The Labyrinth. They’re being broadcast separately, but so many threads weave between all 15 that it’s well worth watching the whole trilogy. Some names are familiar: Dido, Medea, Penelope. Some are not: Oenone, Deianaria, Laodamia. The crib notes at the beginning of each monologue are useful, but the ones at the end feel a little redundant. Surely it doesn’t matter much what happens to these characters (or the men in their stories) after they stop speaking to us – it’s enough, as Jemima Rooper’s mischievous, devastating Briseis says, that the stories will continue after the lights go down. 

Eleanor Tomlinson in '15 Heroines', filmed at the Jermyn Street Theatre

 There are twists, even for those of us who spent our formative years deep in Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths. Isley Lynn benefits from the relative obscurity of Canace, the subject of A Good Story, but Eleanor Tomlinson (pictured above) still pulls it off marvellously. And there are surprises in the stories you think you know, too. Where other versions of Phaedra have her terrified by her own desire for her stepson, in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Pity the Monster, Doña Croll is fully in control. Some of the women discuss what male writers have made of them; others simply tell their stories, in language so lyrical it’d turn Ovid green with envy.

Martina Laird in '15 Heroines', filmed at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Several of the monologues are letters, or the modern equivalents: emails, texts, a video message. Where the myths have been explicitly brought into the present, they never feel awkward or overly earnest. Lorna French’s I See You Now is the most scorching: Martina Laird (pictured right) is Sappho, who, in Ovid’s version, gives everything up for a lover who deserts her. Here, Britain itself is Trinidadian Sappho’s lover, her monologue a refrain for the Windrush generation. “I’m not as White or blonde or thin as you demand,” she tells us, proud as a queen. “But I’m enough all the same.” 

It’s no mean feat, corralling 30 actors and writers into three shows, but directors Adjoa Andoh, Cat Robey, and Tom Littler have done it admirably. Each works just as well separately as it does with the others. The same men crop up in a lot of the stories: Jason promises to love Hipsipyle, then cheats on her with Medea, and then cheats on her in turn (and we all know how that turned out). The women of the Greek myths could do with a group chat where they could warn each other about, for example, Paris being a “fuckboy”, in Laodamia’s (Sophia Eleni) elegant phrase. Famously, monologues don’t invite conversation, but I’d love to watch them all talk to each other. 

There actually is a group chat in the one playlet that engages with the pandemic directly: “The wives’ WhatsApp is on fire,” Penelope (Gemma Whelan) tells us in Hannah Khalil’s Watching the Grass Grow, as she makes dresses and waits for her husband to return from a corporate team-building weekend. Whelan’s eyes dart around the room, the gentle snip of her scissors the only thing keeping her anxiety in check. But it seems a bit of a shame to mention the current situation – for a moment, I’d clean forgotten.

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