15 Heroines: The Desert

April de Angelis, Isley Lynn, Chinonyerem Odimba, Stella Duffy and Lorna French
Jermyn Street Theatre in partnership with Digital Theatre

Indra Ové as Deianaria Credit: Shonay Shote
Rosalind Eleazar as Dido Credit: Marc Brenner
Eleanor Tomlinson as Canace Credit: Marc Brenner
Nicholle Cherrie as Hypermestra Credit: Shonay Shote
Martina Laird as Sappho Credit: Shonay Shote

The first of these five plays, part of the 15 Heroines monologue series commissioned responses to Ovid’s Heroiades, is The Striker by April De Angelis (directed by Adjoa Andoh).

It introduces Deianaria, who isn’t antiquity’s princess of Calydon but a WAG, married to footballer Hercules Neville, “he of the massive dong and the famous left foot.” She can be very funny in what seems to be a chat with a journalist but it doesn't hide the hurt she felt. Hercules was always away on tour, though when he came home she was ready and waiting with chocolate-smeared nipples. He became more like a guest than a husband.

She was proud of his prowess on Strictly but won’t forgive for him leaving her for his professional dance partner. It is a beautifully bitter performance from Indra Ové but she gets her revenge not with a centaur’s poisoned blood but in the modern way with the public poison of scandal.

Next comes Dido in The Choice by Stella Duffy (directed by Cat Robey). A royal refugee from the Middle East and now queen of Carthage, Rosalind Eleazar gives her great strength as she talks of her past, of founding her city and rejecting the many male advances made to her until the arrival of Aeneas fleeing from the destruction of Troy.

A Good Story by Isley Lynn (directed by Tom Littler and Cat Robey) presents Canace, daughter of wind god Aeolus, giving a public interview, responding to unheard questions (which we only know from her answers). Following the suicide of her brother Macareus, she is speaking about something very private: her incestuous relationship with him. Eleanor Tomlinson gives a sensitive performance of an honest and brave young woman, talking frankly about their great love, though momentarily cracking at the hostility being shown when behind her friendly smiles she is grieving.

Next comes the story of Hypermestra, one of the 50 daughters of Danaus who, rather than be forced to marry them to his twin brother’s 50 sons, fled with them to Argos. The cousins followed them and, to avoid bringing war to his hosts, he had to agreed to the marriages but instructed his daughter to each kill their husband on their wedding night. They all did except for Hypermestra, whose husband Lyncaeus had respected her virginity.

In Chinonyerem Odimba’s Girl on Fire, she is writing to him on the night before her trial for disobeying her father with a death penalty threatened. This is more stylized than most of these 15 plays. As she recalls the way she has seen most men treat women since she witnessed a rape when aged 10, Nicholle Cherrie’s Hypermestra smoothly moves from speech into song. Director Adjoa Andoh has her lighting a succession of candles (though I’m not sure what that is intended to signify). More successfully, little details such as the way she grasps a pendant hung round her neck when she mentions Lyncaeus make it seem very real.

I See You Now by Lorna French presents us with Sappho, but here the poet from Lesbos becomes a girl from Trinidad who, since arriving in her white father’s homeland, has become a successful singer-songwriter. Ovid addressed her letter to Phaon, a ferryman lover who deserted her, but here the former lover (sex not identified) becomes a metaphor for the United Kingdom and the way that it has treated the Windrush generation.

Martina Laird skilfully handles the mix of the personal and the political in a reassertion of identity that turns rage into proud confidence.

There are performances only on November 10, 11 and 13 with later availability on Digital Theatre in 2021

Reviewer: Howard Loxton