What I love about Redstitch is the anticipation of the unexpected, and their current season of Splendour certainly continues this tradition. British playwright Abi Morgan’s powerful expose of women, power and the distortion of truth and history is both clever yet challenging. It immediately sets to disarm the audience in terms of place and the connection between four seemingly disparate women but as we move along, their connection and the stakes involved become very clear. On a stripped back black and white set designed by Romanie Harper we enter the home of Micheleine, who is forced to ‘entertain’ photojournalist Kathryn and her translator Gilma whilst they await the arrival of her dictator husband and the reason for Kathryn’s visit. To assist with the predicament, Micheleine recruits her old friend of 25 years, Genevieve to help smooth the wait. And wait they do, for as the many hours pass and with no word from her husband, bombs and gunshots heard nearby and threatening phone calls received, we realise a coup is underway and all their lives are in danger the longer they stay.
Experienced director Jenny Kemp has utilised the sharp, repetitious edge of Morgan’s writing and the small space to great effect; creating a sense of tension, Brechtian displacement and claustrophobia. The blurred lines of this world of wealth and power surrounded by poverty and mutiny both displaces and involves us. The repetitious vignettes, though strangely odd at first, evolve their purpose the more often and frenzied they occur. As each woman’s story emerges, the mood changes and our awareness of the lies and deception grow. With many scenes and time shifts, Kemp’s tightly controlled stylised movement suits the requirements of this story, and there is a real synergy amongst the cast. Their impeccable rhythm grows stronger as the play advances, pot marked with suitable shifts in pace and overlapping of lines and contrasting tonal shifts creating an intense viewing experience.
Belinda McClory’s Micheleine is imposing, charming and utterly manipulative not just of her comrades and acquaintances, but also of us. Her direct story-telling, bracing manic laughter, bubbling violent edge and vodka throwbacks are captivating but more impressive is how this Imelda Marcos of the handbag world (200, 300, numbers are redundant) skilfully commands our compassion and empathy as we see cracks appear in her veneer, desperation grow as she clutches onto her handbag like her life depends on it, and we realise she, the devoted wife, will be the sacrificial lamb of the coup. The intensity of McClory’s portrayal is well offset by the offbeat humour and craftiness of Gilma (Olivia Monticciolo) whose Northern connections make it potentially dangerous or timely for her to even be there. Her strong, sarcastic tone proves she is not to be underestimated, and we chuckle often at her haggling antics and sneaky pocketing of dvds and glassware in her huge purposeful coat. The simple action of peeling and discarding an orange much to their annoyance of her host is a masterful stroke of staging. Monticciolo’s connection with the Kathryn (ensemble actor Rosie Lockhart) adds another interesting dimension as her intentional mistranslations and badgering increase Kathryn’s sense of impatience and frustration. Lockhart’s character is perhaps the trickiest to portray because the cold clinical nature of Kathryn means it takes longer for us to warm to, but her revelations about the effects of photographing massacres is keenly felt in the closing scenes. Lockhart’s ability to burn an imprint into our minds of the horror and the need to buy clean white sheets was both skilfully underplayed and quite effecting. Ensemble actor Olga Makeeva has an understated brilliance in her approach to Genevieve – her revelations about her family, her husband’s supposed suicide and the fraught nature of her friendship with Micheleine are compassionately shared with raw and moving emotion. Perhaps the only niggling irk was the fake connect on the slap given to her resented comrade. But that is a mere quibble in a quartet of talented women whose ebb and flow progressed this story along remarkably well and their unifying line “I don’t understand what you’re saying” demonstrates how the individual approach to line delivery creates new meaning but also connection as well.
The production values are, as always, very high with smart and efficient stage work by Jonas Anderson and Anthony Torounoglou. Romanie Harper’s multi- tasking design work was not only evident in the set but also the simple yet appropriate costumes – cleverly contrasting the bold red of Micheleine with the subdued greens and greys of the other three. Multi Green Room award winning lighting designer Rachel Burke has obviously worked closely with Kemp to use a contrast of reds and stark whites as the mood and scenes shift seamlessly from one to another. And as the characters try to look out the window for news, the muted green yellow tones show how murky their world is becoming. But it is the exceptional sound design by award winning and Tony nominated Russell Goldsmith that most impresses; from bold, echoing bombardments to the shrill phone rings, to the underplaying sounds of haunting fear, all were effectively and timely used to create the sense of impending doom being experienced by the women, and by us.
Splendour is an ambitious play both in terms of content and staging because it relies on us wanting to learn more about women we have thought little about, but whose interactions have serious repercussions for many. In a world where concealment is crucial, the peeling away of the layers of these women shows how they have all necessarily lived a masquerade, but when the pressure is applied, not all can adjust or survive. Using the distancing effect can be risky but the writer and Redstitch production team manage to pull it off as we succumb to not just critically analysing these characters, the choices they make and the relationships they have, but also caring what has happened and will happen to them. This production of Splendour is both accomplished, stimulating and definitely worth buying a ticket for.