Taking Flight / Chapter / The Riverfront
The Riverfront, Newport
International Women's Day saw the first night of a Welsh tour of one of the most significant female-cast plays of recent years. This was courtesy of Taking Flight, which has made a virtue of mounting productions featuring disabled and sensory-impaired performers, its open-air Shakespeare productions having become a fixture of the summer in recent years.
This time round, they have assembled an all-female team to revive peeling, which is a landmark play not only in the career of dramatist Kaite O'Reilly but also in respect of the history of the representation of people with disabilities, particularly women, in theatre.
First produced by Graeae in 2002, it provides substantial roles for the kind of actress who, if fortunate enough to be employed at all, even by an enlightened company (after all, as one character notes, “cripping up is the new blacking up”), tends to find herself in tokenistic victim or “inspirational heroine” roles. And so it is in the play within the play in which the protagonists of peeling, all actresses, find themselves.
Alfa, Beaty and Coral—Bea Webster-Mockett, Ruth Curtis and Steph Lacey—are the chorus in a hip, edgy, modern version of Euripides' The Trojan Women. When they are not needed to declaim the poetic text and symbolise the physical toll of the war, which is the subject of the large-scale production, they are concealed behind a screen and thus are free to chat, bicker, eat, knit and comment on the brutal action occurring on the main stage.
The playing area features numerous video screens, showing surtitles for the benefit both of the audience and Alfa, who is deaf. The trio are initially clad in voluminous crinolines, decorated with vertical lip motifs, commenting on unsubtle depictions of rape; these are later removed to reveal blood-red outfits with an eye design (costumes by Becky Davies and Angharad Gamble). With the dialogue incorporating audio description, the three, aided and abetted by stage manager and signer Erin Hutching, give vent to their frustrations, both professional and personal.
All three have issues with their mothers, Beaty especially pleased to have unexpectedly outlived hers. They find themselves affected by the section of the Trojans play which features the sacrifice of children by their mothers in a higher cause. Coral's announcement that she may be pregnant prompts some uncomfortable confessions.
O'Reilly's text is dense and richly allusive, if inevitably didactic at times. Director Elise Davison oversees some juicily bitchy exchanges and makes the most of visually arresting moments, such as the post-battle tableau of carnage and the point at which the actresses accusingly eyeball the liberal audience.
Tic Ashfield's sound design and Jane Lalljee's lighting effects immersively transport us from backstage at a London theatre to an ancient war zone. But perhaps the most powerful sequence is Alfa's lengthy, signed poetic monologue, initially untranslated, which is positively balletic in its depiction of past trauma.
There is plentiful bawdy humour alongside the anger in what remains a powerful play, sadly relevant on a number of levels. This is a lively, witty production which pays due respect to the intentions behind it.