Jennie Buckman
On the Shoulders of Giants
Arcola Theatre

Production photo

Jewish and Christian cultures blame everything that went wrong for man on Eve eating the apple from the tree of knowledge that the serpent showed her. The ancient Greek's first woman (at least in one legend) is given a sealed jar by the Olympian gods who instruct her never to open it. Of course, since women are always curious, she does - and so gets the blame for releasing of the evils of the world that were bottled up inside. It is always the woman's fault!

Playwright Jennie Buckman explored the Pandora myth with a group of nine women volunteers from Hackney's University of the Third Age, looking at what might have been inside, and hope, the only thing that didn't fly out, and what the bad things - and hope - meant in their lives. The images of those women, on huge video screens, form the backing to the acting space for much of the play that Buckman crafted from their stories, a chorus of commentators between its episodes.

A schoolgirl, Cleo (Sophie Stone), gives us the original myth (though in the more common version of Pandora's Box - Pandora herself appears to correct her). She is working on it for a presentation to her school assembly. Cleo has a violent father (Brian Lonsdale) who takes out his own insecurities on wife (Kay Bridgeman) and daughter and their discomforting story is one of the playlets that make up the play.

In parallel is the story of a modern Pandora (Brigid Zegeni). Burdened, she feels, with undeserved blame, she has retreated into isolation, entirely dependent on a sorely-tried son, so refusing the world outside that she hides letters in the fridge. Why she is so I am uncertain. Something to do with her daughter? A linked scene of what I believe was police interrogation on the far side of the stage from me was so heavily accented and indistinctly spoken that I missed most of it: the Arcola space is vocally very demanding.

Hope and happiness comes through in a scene of two lesbian women about to embark on a civil partnership. It is beautifully played by Bridgeman and Zengeni and gives a wry twist on Pandora's jar for it features one holding a dead husband's ashes, that badness back in a container.

The second half of the play gives us three monologues, spoken from a chair upstage in front of a television camera. This seemed perverse on the part of director Alex Clifton for pictures are shown on small monitors not on the big screens and with the expanse of the acting area, not to say a couple of pillars isolating them from the audience (I hope someone checked for masking), it gave the opposite of the intimacy and directness they demanded. They are well played by Lonsdale, Brian Livingstone and Stone but this staging doesn't help them.

The final story strand, about a woman who has spent her life searching for her baby girl who went missing while the mother was in hospital, was one aspect of the role of Hope but, where much of the rest of the evening cast a critical gaze on male behaviour two of the monologues and this final story gave a much more positive view of men. Touchingly revealing that this mother who claimed immediately to recognize a child who had grown from babyhood to adult failed to recognize the son grown from being a boy - or indeed to have any concern for what had happened to him or his father.

What, I wonder, did the women who provided the raw material of these stories think of what the dramatist had done with them? - and they were there, not just on screen but in the audience. For me they carried the raw pain of reality and a genuine joy in the story of the civil partnership. I don't think the production served them as well as it could have but there are some splendid performances and in all an evening full of interest.

Until 12th June 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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