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Nine

Jane Shepard
Spartan Dogs in association with Giant Olive
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2011)

Nine production photo

Nine, the second production in Giant Olive's Gaea Theatre Festival, which celebrates women playwrights, performers, choreographers and directors, is a dark and disturbing forty-minute American two-hander that its author directed on film in 2000.

It presents us with two women, chained by the neck so that they can move around but not sufficiently to touch each other. There are buckets for their use but no furniture or bedding, a ventilation grill in the black walls and not much light. In Stephen Darcy's production we see them first standing solitary in a kind of limbo in a brief flash of light against a sound like rushing waters that gives way to a throbbing pulse.

When a little light returns they are lying on the ground, one broken and exhausted while the other sharply questions her making her show and move her hands, reveal her face and engage in dialogue. What at first seems an antagonistic interrogation is at the same time way of establishing for the interrogated what has actually been done to her during her grilling by those responsible for their incarceration.

The orange suits of Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the hoods of Abu Ghraib are not on view and it is not clear to what exactly these women have been subjected (partly perhaps because their convincingly American speech, with slurred vowels and lacking consonants, makes the quieter dialogue extremely difficult to follow) though we know enough to imagine, nor is there any indication of where this could be taking place. That is itself part of the story, for sadly we know it could be anywhere: in the hands of what the West thinks of as a terrorist stronghold, in their US itself or in a British basement. But this is not just a stark reminder of the extremes that may be adopted in the name of our protection but also a glimpse at how human beings can find ways to sustain a will to survive.

The edgy untrusting relationship between them, the memory games they play, the little challenges, are all ways in which the human spirit is maintained and pushed to raise itself above despair. At one point Mary Mallen's Prisoner 1 describes how the glimpse of a moonbeam gave her the strength to survive near drowning. Emily White's Prison 2 pushes 1 to complete the proverb 'a stitch in time '

Both actresses sustain the tension and the atmosphere in performances that offer a switchback of feeling range from panic peaks to total exhaustion and the direction, with its ominous gunshots that could be executions and the sound of feet heavily approaching gives varied pace without relaxing the tightly wound stress. In Nine for forty minutes Shepard gives us an emotional picture of a situation. She does not offer any arguments or even a proper narrative. She does not need to; the moral judgments, the political logic, our own potential guilt and the question of how we might cope with

"Nine" plays in repertoire at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 31st August; the Gaea Festival continues until 12th November

Reviewer: Howard Loxton