A review of Woman and Scarecrow by Lauren Noble
An unnamed woman lies dying on a large bed. Emaciated. Her diminutive frame dwarfed all the more by layers of linen. Sheets which will soon become shrouds. Her ragged breath drawn so intermittently that there is an overwhelming sense that someone - anyone! - should confirm the rise and fall of her chest. Just in case. Danú Dubai's Woman and Scarecrow takes us on a poetic and intimate introspection of a woman who is fully aware that her time on the earthly plane is almost at an end. It is a final stretch that is punctuated by the oft-unwelcome visitations from the familiar faces of the stoic Aunty Ah and the mercurial Him. And yet, it is the addition of the double-edged Scarecrow into this particular mix of personalities that provides us with the most interesting insights into the nature of life and of death, as we are called to witness one account of all that happens in between.
From the moment that the evocative imagery for Woman and Scarecrow was released on social media by Danú Dubai I knew that I would be most invested in exploring the nature of the relationship between the two titular characters. There was just something about the unbridled chemistry between Gwen Watson and Genette Harrison that leapt out of the stillness of the images and held your gaze long after you meant to look away. Scarecrow was seemingly set up as the antithesis of Woman, a concept that was very quickly established as Harrison broke the fourth wall and emerged from within the audience at the very start of the play. This was a significant directorial choice by Pádraig Downey who immediately steered into our expectation that Scarecrow belongs to a different world than the one that Woman is about to leave. Their costume designs served to further reiterate the difference between them, with what initially appeared to be a nod to the conventional fantasy trope signifying the oppositional forces of good and evil. Contradictory. Conflicting. Contrary. Well, that was until the entire concept forcibly imploded in on itself! It was both fascinating and maddening in equal measure when the white of Woman's nightgown began to occupy a far more troublesome space in your mind as the play progressed. After all, if white is meant to be a symbol of purity then that nightgown suddenly existed in stark juxtaposition to many of Woman's less than palatable personality traits. These nagging thoughts about her character began to emerge more frequently as the play progressed and she continued to narrate snapshots of her life to the audience. And don't even get me started on the pervasive undercurrent of gentility which makes itself known in Scarecrow. Belying her status as some unfeeling creature from the darkest corners of the underworld, a softness and vulnerability appears in this character as we really get into the thick of things in Act 1. This surprising turn of events meant that I felt compelled to question my own prejudices and began wondering whether they may have even existed before the opening lines of the play itself. Was it really that easy to believe something without anything other than their aesthetic to back it up? The upending of expectation was the theme apparent then, and it was one which hung in the air throughout the performance, urging the audience to remain active participants in questioning the identities of these two seemingly interdependent women and the characters who surround them.
When people ask me what I thought of Woman and Scarecrow, I still find that I battle to provide a straightforward answer to the question. Upon reflection, I think this is largely due to my impression of the play as an intensely abstract rhapsody, layered to the hilt with meaning or meaninglessness, fact or fallacy, beginnings or endings. Of course, this meant that our role as the audience was to witness the action as it unfolded whilst simultaneously making a decision for ourselves about which choice we wanted to engage with. Did the poetry of the play hold meaning for us? Was every story told by every character a fallacy interpreted for us by a waning mind? Was this a play about Woman's ending on earth or about Scarecrow's beginning as something more? The upending of our own expectations was therefore something that affected us in the audience as we sat socially-distanced in the Kilachand Theatre at Mall of the Emirates. Decisions lay firmly within our own reach throughout the play, entirely dependent on how we chose to read each moment as presented by a highly talented cast and (perhaps more significantly) which layers of this convoluted rhapsody remained with us over others. For me, it was much less about what the play did or did not do as how it was about how it made me feel. There were many moments which gave rise to an overwhelmingly ephemeral sense of nostalgia in what became a thoroughly memory-inducing piece of theatre. It was as if the words I was experiencing in real time were sparking an old film projector inside my mind to begin playing a series of spliced reels of my own memories... and not all of them good. Perhaps this is the true power of Marina Carr's words, then? That they hold an innate capacity to invigorate memories within us, causing us to seek out parallels within our own lives? And all because of a play that was not as much about death as it was about the privilege of living.
Marina Carr has a penchant for crafting stories that would not be amiss amongst the tales of the ancient Greek tragedians. This lies in her ability to couch elements of acute reality within a framework of fantasy, giving this play a kind of nouveau-classical feel. Carr's previous works all draw on an appreciation for how ancient stories hold a measure of truth even for the most modern audiences. In much the same way that her Medea-inspired By the Bog of Cats daringly interweaves a contemporary narrative with an ancient tale, Woman and Scarecrow tends to draw on the tension between mystical forces and bitter realities. My favourite feature of this production was one that drew on my study of ancient Greek texts - because instead of a chorus of fifteen Theban elders who wax lyrical about the action of Antigone, this play provided us with a series of poetic interludes from Antigone herself as she draws ever closer to certain death. It effectively gave Woman full control over how her own narrative is told to an audience. There is immense power in such a reclamation of ownership and it is a power which the leading lady of Woman and Scarecrow is no stranger to.
"Dubai directors have given me lots of exciting opportunities to play incredible women." - Gwen Watson
Watching Gwen Watson on stage is quite the experience. She has this unique ability to illuminate an entire stage with her masterful portrayals of complex female characters. Pádraig Downey was right to cast someone like her in a role which required a sophisticated understanding of how to play a character who exists on an ever-swinging pendulum: too far to the one side and the character ends up a rambling narcissist, too far to the other and she becomes a monotonous narrator. Watson was unerring in her portrayal of Woman, challenging any assumption that the protagonist of a story cannot be an impactful enough antagonist too. It was the vacillation between the sweet and the sour that I was so captivated by in Watson's portrayal and I must admit that I was thrilled to discover that it was something that she consciously confronted during her process. "I think Woman looks back on her life with a bitter humour which gives her a real seesaw effect; in the depths of despair one moment, then finding that despair hilarious the next. She was certainly one of the most complex characters I have ever played and an absolute joy to tackle, from start to finish. "
Of course, we cannot speak of Woman without acknowledging Scarecrow. I was deeply moved by the relationship between these two characters and it is a credit to the actors that their performance was capable of reiterating an entirely abstract bond to the point that it became completely tangible. Genette Harrison's portrayal of Scarecrow was wonderfully delectable and I could tell that she was having just as much fun toying with her character's identity as we were puzzling to figure it out in the audience. In the space of about fifteen minutes towards the middle of Act 1 there was overwhelming evidence within her performance that Scarecrow could be the subliminal self, a manifestation of all those repressed parts of Woman which exist beyond her own awareness. She could also be the harbinger of death, a grim reaper visiting to claim her latest victim or even an archangel sent over to make that final journey a little easier.
Scarecrow could just as easily be a coping mechanism: a near-death illusion of Woman's mind as the veil between the living and the dead begins to fade.
Harrison's ability to change my perception of what or who Scarecrow was with the slightest shift in her vocal inflection or the duality ingrained in her physical action was absolutely entrancing. She attributes much of her own development as an actress within this play to working with a director like Pádraig Downey. "Whenever any of the cast had a query about the text, the relationship between characters, or even just the background of the play, Pádraig was prepared. I really enjoyed the moments when we'd stop the scene and we would all just ponder together, coming up with ideas about the many complexities of these characters, sharing our own guesses about what these characters are actually going through. I learned a lot in this process - thanks to Pádraig's attention to detail, research methods, and most of all his supportive directing style." The ensemble ethos of Danú Dubai is something that continues to impress me because it is yet another example of a successful theatre company which holds its own within an industry that can sometimes leave artists feeling disenfranchised as opposed to empowered. The performing arts will always be richer for drawing on the collaborative potential of the entire ensemble, resulting in a memorable experience not only for the audience but for the cast and crew whose dedication can so often be rendered invisible after opening night. It is for this very reason that I love hearing behind-the-scenes stories where the synergy between the production and performance teams is so prevalent.
With a cast of four - not counting the ominous presence of a fifth character who resides in the wardrobe - Woman and Scarecrow is a play which relies heavily on its performers to keep the audience invested. Having watched them both as a dutiful husband and wife in The Permanent Way by Dubai Drama Group in May, I was curious to see the nature of a relationship between a husband and wife who were manifestly torn asunder. It was especially interesting to observe them as I began to mistrust a lot of what was being narrated by Woman herself. Ciaran Mulhern's Him was a resolute presence in the play, providing the audience with a counterpoint for many of the stories of abandonment and mistreatment that we hear directly from Woman throughout. Scarecrow's hatred of Him is particularly entertaining, albeit dark, and some of my favourite moments on stage involved the three-way conversations where Mulhern's character is unable to engage with a third of the dialogue due to it being spoken by Scarecrow who simply does not exist in his reality. I can only imagine the level of concentration that must have been required to play those beats realistically! Having just completed a contextually-specific play about the British railroads, I was so interested to hear Mulhern's take on whether the words of an Irish playwright in a play set in the Irish midlands are in any way relevant to an international Dubai audience. "I think the strength of this play is that everyone will take their own meaning away from the relationships. There are a lot of things which are not defined but are left to the actors to interpret. The play has its roots in Irish culture, but the themes are universal. Death, tradition, relationships, conflict - these affect us all." If that isn't confirmation enough for us to see some more cultural explorations through the medium of theatre in the UAE, then I don't know what is!
As a former drama teacher, I am most looking forward to the day that schools are once again able to bring their students to the theatre. The classroom discussion of Woman and Scarecrow would have provided some fascinating insights, perhaps even arguments, due to how varied the interpretation of the play would have been. My absolute favourite lessons were the ones where my classes would go about crafting detailed mindmaps of analytical commentary as we prepared for their live theatre component in their theory exam. I cannot overstate the importance of students of theatre frequenting the theatre. It's simple, really: the more you are exposed to in actuality, the easier and easier it is to relate the practical elements to the theory which underpins it during your exams. I would have jumped at the chance to use Woman and Scarecrow for evaluative purposes for GCSE Drama and A-level Theatre Studies because there was just so much to discuss. For a start, it was resounding proof of just how much performers can be directed to do with a single riser on stage. Seriously?! The entire play takes place on and around a double bed! In an age of intense visual stimulation, it was a bold directorial choice which paid off because the blocking of this play was never stagnant and at no point were my eyes seeking more activity on stage. I must admit, though, that one aesthetic element I would have liked to see more of was the lighting design which had such potential. There was a dark, brooding burgundy which accented the wardrobe to the point that a few audience members were actually quite nervous about the creature which resided inside being summoned out onto the stage as the colour shifted. The opportunity to play a little more with the use of blue in referencing eternity after the Virgin Mary conversation with Auntie Ah was something I was almost left waiting for in the very last frame of the play - especially after we were all subjected to the morbid violence of a much messier ending than I was expecting. Then again, perhaps the serenity of a soft blue representing Eternity's Shores was asking too much of a play that consistently upended our expectations.
Now... we need to talk about that accent work! What a phenomenal example this would have been to theatre students about how accents have the power to transport you into a context more conclusively than set design might have. The non-Irish performers were clearly put through their paces to retain the naturalisation of the Irish lilt, especially considering how each dialect places it's intonation somewhere slightly different to the next. I would have advised my students to spend an entire paragraph discussing enunciation, intonation and vocality in their final exam! Not to mention the very necessary conversation about how much of an impact a character with very few lines can have on the entire atmosphere of a production. I willed Auntie Ah to return to the stage more often than the script called for and I think a lot of it had to do with how her dialogue resonated with someone who, like me, was raised Catholic and has met many Aunty Ah's over the years. There are small reverberations that exist within your psyche when you've experienced a tragedy not unlike the one depicted in Woman and Scarecrow but it was bizarre to hear some of those platitudes played out by such a gifted actress. Mary O'Sullivan brought a sense of ease to that stage, and I found myself chortling at this religious character as she held her rosary and simultaneously spouted some of the most vicious lines of dialogue in the play! Death... it truly brings out the most fascinating characteristics in humans.
Theatre is the perfect nexus of education and empathy, influencing us to understand things about life through the journey we go on alongside the characters in a play. It may even urge us to teach ourselves through a sense of connection to the story, or the characters, or even the world that was created for that brief moment in time - and that can sometimes happen years later, when something we'd heard or watched in a play suddenly clicks into place in our more mature minds. In Marina Carr's Woman and Scarecrow it is Woman's story, but she takes us on her winding road of reflection which is aided, abetted and sometimes even attacked by the likes of the enigmatic Scarecrow, the disagreeable Auntie Ah and the complicated Him. Her story left me saddened that any person should ever feel so deeply unfulfilled so close to the end of a life somewhat unlived. At its core Woman and Scarecrow is existential in nature, asking us to acknowledge what a privilege it is to be amongst the living and to work through those tensions that exist between dark and light, past and present, life and death. A very famous song begins to play within my mind as I write those words. It makes me smile because I realise that the very act of reducing this nouveau-classical play into a series of binary opposites runs the risk of oversimplifying what is a rich and labyrinthine epic. After all, we don't choose which parts of Bohemian Rhapsody to listen to. We simply allow all 5 minutes and 55 seconds of it all to infiltrate our minds, exhilarate our souls and intoxicate our senses. And hey, if it's good enough for Queen...
© Lauren Noble for Collab Company | 2021
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