Skip to main content

Eclipsed- Gate Theatre

Eclipsed may be about a period during Liberia’s Civil War when the country was ruled by warlords but it’s also a paean for women and champions those who would eventually go on to lead the country to greater stability.
Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 14.03.50
Faith Alabi (L) and Letitia Wright (R) © Helen Murray
Danai Gurira's play throws us into the midst of a concrete compound, a harem for a violent guerrilla CO, whose invisible presence dominates the lives of his two sexual slaves. But soon, a young girl (Letitia Wright) protected by wife No.1 (Michelle Asante)  becomes wife No.4, causing hierarchical chaos, especially when No.2 (Faith Alabi) now a soldier and ‘business woman’ arrives back on the scene:  No.4 is squabbled over like the clothes the women glibly reappropriate from the CO’s dead victims. When Big Jue Charity Worker Rita (T’nia Miller) from the Women for Liberia Mass Action for Peace pays a visit, the quintet is complete- the scene is set for us to see how the war blights the lives of these very different women.
Except, the play is far more complex than this and, in a sort of unofficial Sande society, shows a collective female soul as scarred as the wasted landscapes the war leaves behind. Chiara Stephenson’s stage is semi traverse, the women move up and down it as if on a catwalk (think a recent staging of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, the effect is not too dissimilar) we are the UN peacekeeping spectators, watching the atrocities as if from afar. At times the women stick the gnarled branches of trees into the concrete as if it is being raped, cut or stabbed. The theme of why people abuse is one of the channelling rivers of the piece. As a way of escaping the CO’s sexual favours, which for No.3 (Joan Iyiola) includes motherhood, No.4 chooses the life of a female soldier, only opening herself to further opportunities to abuse and be abused- a lesson in how the mind will skewer and pressurise a person’s moral compass when survival becomes the primal and only drive to live at all: she believes she has become  a soldier to oust brutal drug crazed President Chucky Taylor, she convinces no one, least of all herself. None of the other women are morally free either- No.3 steals clothes that were meant for No.4 and her bitterness is as sharp as any blade, No.2 is a woman who believes that in order to survive she must be like a man, the gun becoming the stick she rapes life with instead of the penis. The women’s lives are lived under the presence of some ‘other’ (Liberians believe in hidden forces)- whose forgiveness Rita seems to seek by giving up her business empire to promote peace- but she too is kidding herself.
And there is a continuing theme of disassociation. Not only are the audience made voyeurs by the catwalk like stage, not only have the women forgotten their birth names and see themselves only as numbers or, when soldiers, as vengeful spirits (Disgruntled or Mother’s Blessing)  the women are also detached from their own bodies: dressing up for the CO and wearing wigs is important, caring for themselves is not. When each woman returns from their sexual encounter they can hardly bare to touch themselves- they are unable to embrace their own pain or wash their genitalia with any compassion for the self. Which means they can only understand their pain by proxy- by reliving it through the pain of others- ‘Bill Clinton’s Hilary’ for example, No.4’s horrific war experiences, No.2’s exuberance at ‘firing’ on a man, or taking clothes from other dead women or selling them as sex slaves.
Each woman though, is a reflection of what the other has lost. They remind each other of what they once were, former selves that exist at the back of their minds like shadows in Mark Howland’s sometimes glaring hot Liberian light. Often at critical times, Danai Gurira's writing brings the women to personal crises- so that we realise that they will either be reborn or will die. For a moment No.1 cannot cope with what she sees the abuse has done to her- like a cancer, its effects have remained unseen, inexperienced and hidden to her- when full realisation dawns, it is almost too much.
But castration is also a pertinent unsung theme. For No.2 a gun is empowering and castrates any man who may abuse her- ‘her’s’ can kill, she is a double threat to the warlords who treat their women as objects. War and its physical attacks on the body is referred to using present participles- ‘chopping’, ‘cutting’- language essentially male. Yet, Danai Gurira's sometimes use of Liberian English also adds a femininity and warmth to it, conveying emotion by adding ‘o’ onto the ends of words or phrases: there’s a conflict of cold/ warm, hard/soft, man/woman- none more so when No.4 cross dresses when she becomes a soldier.
Hope, flavoured with humour, is the pervading feeling in the play though. The women almost become a Sande society and on Chiara Stephenson’s Nash like landscape, Letitia Wright as No.4 stands as symbol of the country’s future- with perhaps some sense of its future struggles, not least with the still to come devastating effects of Ebola.
Caroline Byrne directs a committed passionate cast.

Eclipsed is at Gate Theatre until 16th May

Faith Alabi
Michelle Asante
Joan Iyiola
T’nia Miller
Letitia Wright
writer: Dania Gurira
director: Caroline Byrne
designer: Chiara Stephenson
lighting designer: Mark Howland
sound designer: George Dennis
production manager: Michael Ager
assistant designer: Isabella Van Braeckel
stage manager: Surenee Chan Somchit
movement director: Stephanie George
voice coach: Hazel Holder
assistant director:  Rebecca Hill


Popular posts from this blog

Collabo- Hip hop with a difference

There’s a buzz in the air at Stratford Circus Arts Centre. No wonder, this is the 10th anniversary of Collabo, Tony Adigun’s annual dance celebration founded in 2006 to promote new collaborations and hip-hop hybrids from dance groups. Friday’s program of short portfolios opens with 10 (UnTitled Dance Company) choreographed by Lukas McFarlane lasting fifteen minutes (no mean feat in the hip-hop world) and featuring 10 tracks and illustrating some super synchronised steps and gyros executed with military precision. The occasional, surprising rigidness of the choreography is broken by experimentation with spoken word. Liberation (What Is Written Dance Company) has the same exactness, but their more simple choreography is easier on the eye after the mass sprawl of 10. Kweku Aacht and Guest Dancers produce an interpretation of a track performed live onstage- the sometimes rowdy crowd shouting out and encouraging the performers on hold their breath as the troupe fluctuate between free style a…

Once in a Lifetime- theatre review: slightly revised to reflect the ambiguous ending

Once in a Lifetime is a show about the tenuous and complicated relationship between creativity and destruction. Re-adapted here by Chris Hart, son of one half of the original writing duo Moss Hart and George S Kaufman, the show may well be set in 1930s Hollywood just as the talkies are about to change cinema forever, but it might also be poking fun at an art form that is a little closer to home. Director Richard Jones always takes risks with little produced, marginalised or very well known works in a bid to uncover something new that might be a comment on our own times. Here, a story about hapless Vaudeville trio act George (John Marquez), Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and May (Claudie Blakley), who set out to conquer Hollywood with their mythic elocution school, is the perfect fit for the director to explore themes that seem to obsess him: national myth, parody, the tyranny of power, willed self-destruction, bureaucracy, global fantasy, etc. So far, the show has not gone down so well with the c…

Walking the Tightrope- Theatre Delicatessen

Site-specific set? Perhaps. In the old Guardian offices in Farringdon, Offstage Theatre and Theatre Uncut curate a cycle of 12 short plays exploring the tension[s] between art and politics, reactions to the budget cuts to the arts in the UK and debate freedom of expression controversies. Corruption, class divides, perception, blood money, gesture politics and culpability, it’s all there and recent topical events are given stage time, from The Tricycle’s controversial decision to withdraw their support for the UK Jewish Film Festival to the Barbican’s cancelled Exhibit B. The plays are entertaining- Sun City by April De Angelis, Re: Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan, Old Newland by Julie Pascal, Tickets are on Sale Now by Caryl Churchill and Exhibit A, by Neil LaBute, all deserve special mention for looking beyond the parameters of funding and freedom of expression in the UK arts- by which of course, I mean a theatrical London still surfing the very last trickling waves of Colonialism and it…