This review first appeared on the Ed Fringe Review website on 19 August 2015.
Women of the Mourning Fields is best described as Toy Story as written by Samuel Beckett, with a bit of help from a Shakespeare hot off the success of Titus Andronicus. Unfortunately, that description probably does this play a few too many favours, as an idea with tons of potential is marred by bare-bones production values and uninspired writing. A history play about the way we read historical narratives, this is yet another student production which shows that in metafiction, the meta is rather less important that the fiction.
The plot concerns the Roman historical figures Agrippina, Poppaea and Octavia, trapped in a nightmarish limbo and forced to act out their bloody chapter of ancient history every night for a tyrannical stage director and an indifferent audience. It’s a wonderfully high concept premise, but the true horror of its central idea is largely brushed over in favour of wooden banter and lots of tedious speeches about the place of women in history. These are undoubtedly important points, but would be better served by coming from interesting characters as opposed to the bland archetypes on offer here.
There are some good moments here; the staging, while minimal, makes inventive use of lighting to convey shifts in the role of the narrator, and there are a few genuinely clever uses of simultaneous staging to convey two scenes from a single character’s point of view.
Performances are broadly competent, and while none stand out as particularly memorable, none betray the kind of ham or inexperience necessary to scupper the production. Grace Gilbert has enough skill and charisma as Agrippina to make you wish you were watching her in a better play, and Sophie Harris and Rebecca Forsyth play the other two as well as can be expected.
It’s just a bit limp all round, really. There are interesting ideas here, but half of them are presented incoherently and the other half rely on such tired dramatic conventions as to rob them of their power. The dialogue is replete with clichéd lines, which is ironic for a play about rejecting negatively gendered stereotyping of history.
The play is best summarised by a single moment within it when, discussing a mad emperor, a character declared “‘Mad’ is a word used by lazy writers”. People who live in glass houses…